Kentucky legislative leaders said in a recent joint interview that they’re open to considering legalizing medical marijuana during the state’s 30-day lawmaking session that kicked off this week, but legislators from both parties pushed back against a plan by Gov. Andy Beshear (D) that would impose a tax on the drug.
“If you’re taking that approach, that it’s a money generator, then you’re not thinking about the medicinal or therapeutic value,” Senate President Robert Stivers II (R) said. Imposing a tax on marijuana genuinely intended for medical use, he added, would be “treating it differently than any other drug, which in and of itself is wrong.”
Stivers, a longtime skeptic of medical marijuana, said he’s recently been convinced of THC’s therapeutic benefits in certain treatments, although he stopped short of supporting legalization this session. “I’m not opposed to it,” he said, “but I really think the lead—and I hate doing this—needs to come from the federal government.”
“Let’s get the appropriate protocols and have the research and development like we’ve had this past year, with the vaccines for COVID-19,” Stivers added. “Just as we would with the Moderna, or anything else, let’s go through the study, let’s get blind samples, let’s make sure we’re doing it right.”
Stivers and other top lawmakers, including House Speaker Dave Osborn (R), Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) and House Minority Floor Leader Joni Jenkins (D), were speaking during an interview with Kentucky PBS station KET that aired Monday.
The state’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a medical marijuana legalization bill last year, but Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stalled the bill in committee. The coronavirus pandemic broke out the same month, in March, and the Senate never returned to the measure.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) said in the KET interview this week that it’s “past time for medical marijuana in Kentucky,” and urged his colleagues to simply allow a legalization bill to come to a vote this session.
“I’d just like to see it brought for a vote,” he said. “If it passes on the floor of the Senate, great. If it doesn’t pass on the floor of the Senate, then that says something, too.”
Watch the lawmakers discuss medical cannabis, around 32:40 into the video below:
No Senate legalization bill has yet been introduced this session, but McGarvey said some in his party are considering it.
A poll from last February found that nine out of 10 Kentuckians supported legalizing medical marijuana and nearly six in 10 (59 percent) felt cannabis should be legal “under any circumstances.”
McGarvey agreed with his Republican counterparts that if marijuana is legalized, it should not be subject to tax. “I don’t think we should view medical marijuana itself as a revenue producer for the state,” he said. “There will be some revenue that comes from allowing medicinal marijuana to be grown and cultivated and then given out here, but we have a prohibition against taxing medicine in Kentucky, and that’s something I actually am in favor of.”
That stance clashes with Gov. Beshear’s proposal to legalize medical marijuana and tax the drug to bring in state revenue. “If it’s not revenue positive,” he said in an earlier KET interview recorded December 28, ahead of the legislative session, “you can’t support that administrative arm that’s required to make sure it’s done right.”
The tax would not necessarily be charged to patients at the point of sale, the governor said, but could instead be imposed on growers or retailers. Any tax would nevertheless likely increase costs for patients.
Beshear said the money is necessary to cover expenses such as inspections and regulatory enforcement. Last year’s bill, he said, suggested lawmakers didn’t understand the capabilities of the state’s regulatory agencies.
“We certainly hope, given that enforcing this law will fall upon the executive branch,” the governor said, “that they’ll talk with us about where to house it and how to do it effectively.”
Watch the governor discuss medical cannabis, around 36:25 into the video below:
Bipartisan lawmakers from the House, meanwhile, seemed to acknowledge in the KET interview that legalization’s primary political obstacle lies in the Senate.
“Our caucus has been behind this for many, many sessions,” said House Minority Floor Leader Jenkins, “and nothing has changed in that.”
House Speaker Osborne suggested that medical cannabis would likely advance through his chamber again and that “there’s some hope that the Senate will take it up.”
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“At the end of the day, I think that the overwhelming majority of the people in our caucus, in our body, our chamber, are tired of making criminals out of sick people,” he said. “You know, we freely prescribe narcotics and opioids to excess every single day with far greater consequences.”
Osborne also joined the chorus of lawmakers opposed to taxing the drug. “I disagree completely with the governor on taxation,” he said. “We do not tax tax medicine in this state. It’s inhumane to tax medicine. We we made that statement as tax policy years and years ago… To open that debate, we would have to open the debate about taxing pharmaceuticals completely.”
Like most U.S. states, Kentucky exempts prescribed but not over-the-counter medications. While marijuana would not be regulated as a prescription medicine, a medical marijuana law would likely require patients to obtain a physician’s recommendation much as they would a prescription.
On the federal level, drug reform observers have been watching Kentucky closely in part because of hopes among some reformers that any form of legalization there could encourage U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), who represents the state, to relax his stance on cannabis. McConnell has been a consistent obstacle to legalization in the Senate and was widely expected to be a deciding factor in whether the chamber hears marijuana legislation in 2021.
Wins this week for Democrats in Georgia’s runoff elections for two U.S. Senate seats, however—which appeared likely as of Wednesday morning—would remove McConnell from his position as Senate majority leader, significantly blunting his influence on national cannabis policy and allowing Democrats to move more easily on cannabis reform.
“If Democrats win those two seats,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said last month, “I’m pretty confident that you will see—maybe not the major legislation that I seek—but you’re going to see a relaxing.”