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Why Kentucky’s House-Passed Medical Marijuana Bill Died In The Senate (Op-Ed)



“It’s a shame that Republican leaders have turned their backs on Kentucky’s farmers and veterans, two Republican-leaning groups that directly benefit from legal cannabis.”

By Jim Higdon, Cornbread Hemp

Last week, hope died that Kentucky would join 37 other states to legalize medical marijuana with the end of the legislative session. Cause of death: Senate Republican leadership.

The Kentucky House, dominated by a Republican supermajority, passed a very limited medical marijuana bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican. The bill was far too strict by any non-Kentucky standard, but it was a step in the right direction. Its passage would have put Kentucky one step closer to becoming a healthier state.

As the data generated in medical marijuana states continues to be studied, it seems clear that states with legal cannabis have a surprising number of better outcomes over a range of key health indicators. States with legal medical marijuana have seen a greater than 25 percent reduction in opioid overdoses, and have become less obese and less reliant on the foster care system.

These are three areas where Kentucky could use some help. Kentucky currently ranks second for drug overdose mortality, fourth in child abuse cases and fifth in obesity rates. Medical marijuana, it seems, could help with all these.

I am a Kentucky native who knows cannabis politics, and I am the co-founder of a Kentucky-based CBD brand, Cornbread Hemp. Before that, I was a journalist covering cannabis policy for POLITICO on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the country. Also, my father is a Republican state senator in Kentucky. So cannabis in Kentucky is a topic and a place that I understand.

Earlier this year, I published a column in Louisville’s Courier-Journal where I examined recent polling data that showed just how strong the support is for cannabis legalization in Kentucky. In fact, 52 percent of Kentucky Republicans are in favor of fully legalizing cannabis. The number of Republicans willing to pass a much more restrictive medical marijuana bill must be significantly higher.

About a month ago, with a couple of weeks left in the session, Kentucky’s medical marijuana bill seemed to have everything going for it—it was supported by a majority of all Kentuckians, including a majority of Republicans, and it passed the House with plenty of time for the Senate to put it on the governor’s desk.

But when Kentucky’s medical marijuana bill went over to the Senate, Republican leaders refused to send it to committee, perhaps because the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, came out in support of the medical marijuana bill during the session.

This move by the Judiciary Committee chairman denied leaders the ability to kill the bill in committee, so they just didn’t send it to a committee at all. So when the session ended this past Thursday night, a handful of Republican leaders successfully thwarted the will of the vast majority of Kentuckians, leaving Kentucky among the last states to offer safe access to medical cannabis to its citizens.

There are currently 13 states without medical marijuana. South Carolina could be the next state to legalize with a Senate-passed bill under consideration in its House, and the North Carolina legislature begins its session next month. On top of that, three states will likely have the medical marijuana question on the ballot in November.  That could leave Kentucky on a list of prohibition states numbering in the single digits by year’s end, just as I predicted in a column for the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this year.

So where do we go from here? Despite this heart-breaking setback, all isn’t lost. For starters, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has been supportive of the medical marijuana bill during the session and said he would consider executive action if the bill didn’t pass.

It remains to be seen what the governor could do on this issue, aside from instructing law enforcement to de-prioritize enforcement of marijuana laws. That would be great, but hardly a replacement for a legal cannabis program.

It also remains to be seen what consequences Republican leaders will pay for killing medical marijuana, if any consequences at all. It’s a shame that Republican leaders have turned their backs on Kentucky’s farmers and veterans, two Republican-leaning groups that directly benefit from legal cannabis.

Kentucky has been growing the world’s finest cannabis since 1775. The time to acknowledge that reality has long since passed. The good news is that the next legislative session is just nine months away. But without national pro-cannabis groups coming to Kentucky to help elect more Democrats and pro-cannabis Republicans, it’s hard to know what will change next year.

Jim Higdon is co-founder of Cornbread Hemp, a premium CBD brand based in Kentucky. He is also the author of The Cornbread Mafia, a nonfiction account of the biggest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history, which was based in his Kentucky hometown.

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