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With clock ticking on Kentucky’s legislative session, will lawmakers pass a medical cannabis bill?

Kentucky Capitol building
Ryland Barton

A bill legalizing medical cannabis has been assigned to a committee in the Kentucky Senate. Advocates say it marks a small step forward after years of stalling.

Bills that would legalize medical cannabis have stalled in the Kentucky Legislature for years, but advocates say this might be the session that the policy finally passes into law.

Senate Bill 47 was assigned to the Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee last week – a development advocates say marks a small step forward for the cause after years of disappointment.

Though medical cannabis proposals have passed out of the House before, leaders of the Senate have historically been more skeptical of the issue.

Matthew Bratcher, executive director for the Kentucky chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he feels optimistic about the bill’s chances because more conservative leaders have been open to the idea.

“I think it’s a good starting point. It just seems like things are different this year, and maybe they see that the time is right. There seems to be a lot of clues from leadership, where they've said, ‘hey, we're not standing in the way of this,” he said.

Eight medical cannabis bills were filed this session, including a proposal to fully decriminalize possession of the drug and another that would amend the state constitution – a process that would require Kentuckians to weigh in on the issue during a statewide referendum.

SB 47 would legalize possession and use of medical cannabis as long it’s not smoked. It would give doctors leeway to determine which conditions to prescribe cannabis for. And it would regulate who can grow and dispense cannabis.

Republican Sen. Stephen West, a Republican from Paris and sponsor of the bill, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about it passing. He said the biggest hurdle for it in the Republican-led Senate is the fact that cannabis is still illegal at the federal level.

“It does make them hesitant that marijuana is illegal on the federal level. But what has made them comfortable over the recent years is that more and more states have legalized cannabis, and that offers them hope,” he said.

West’s proposal has drawn 11 co-sponsors in the 38-member Senate.

Bills legalizing medical cannabis passed the House with bipartisan support in 2020 and 2022, but the measure has hit a wall in the Senate both years.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said he’s not enthusiastic about medical cannabis but keeping an open mind.

“Instead of people yelling at me on social media, I have had meetings with constituents who say that their lives have been affected positively by medical marijuana and that’s moved me to keep an open mind,” he said.

Thayer echoed West’s concerns that cannabis being illegal on the federal level stands in the way, and said any bill legalizing it should not allow cannabis to be smoked and should be “narrowly focused on a handful of afflictions.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said earlier this year he would support medical cannabis use in end-of-life circumstances.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is seeking reelection this year, issued an executive order allowing Kentuckians to possess cannabis legally purchased in other states, as long as they have a note from a doctor.

Since then, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles pledged his supportfor legalizing medical cannabis, saying it would “benefit patients across Kentucky.” Quarles is running in a crowded race of Republicans hoping to unseat Beshear.

Bratcher, with the Kentucky chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, said passing a medical cannabis bill this year would benefit Republicans during this year’s race for governor.

“This is going to be a big issue in the governor’s race. The Senate Republicans have an opportunity to own the issue and not let somebody in the governor's office take credit for the work that's been done there for the last few years. Passing it this session would really go a long way to doing that,” Bratcher said.

This year’s legislative session ends on March 30th.

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Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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