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Here’s what’s next for legalizing medical cannabis in Kentucky

Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building
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Kentucky Representatives could pass a bill to legalize medical cannabis late this month. The next step would be the governor's desk.

Kentucky lawmakers are inching closer to passing a law that would legalize medical cannabis. It’s a much-awaited step forward for an issue that has support from both Republican lawmakers and Democratic Governor Andy Beshear.

The measure is Senate Bill 47 by Republican Sen. Stephen West from Paris, which would legalize using and possessing cannabis to treat certain conditions as long as it can’t be smoked.

If the proposal becomes law, it will only take effect in 2025. That gives lawmakers time to set guidelines and framework for a statewide medical cannabis program.

Matthew Bratcher leads the Kentucky chapter of National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. He called the Senate passage historic.

“A lot of people did evolve on the issue because they saw the need for it. I have respect that they took the time to get it right, as they see it right, ” he said, alluding to lawmakers who opposed legalizing the substance in the past, notably Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown.

To Bratcher and many other advocates’ surprise, Thayer cast a yes vote and called it a “tough decision.”

“I’ve seen the ‘80s, and I’m not in favor of recreational use. I’m an old-fashioned guy but I changed my mind because I’m just trying to show a little empathy and sympathy in my old age,” said Thayer, who is 55.

Lawmakers who were skeptical on the issue in past years voted for medical cannabis use Thursday night, often citing its benefits in end-of-life circumstances and for veterans struggling with PTSD.

The bill provides requirements and conditions for growing, dispensing and packaging of medical cannabis. It permits non-combustible forms of cannabis like edibles and tinctures.

But Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni from Louisville said there needs to be more conversation around decriminalization of cannabis, as well as a framework for pardoning and expunging felony charges for possessing and using the substance. She said she hopes lawmakers will take that step before 2025.

“We’ve crossed the first hurdle, the sky is not going to fall if people can access medical cannabis. But the next step is really discussing fairness and equity,” she said.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order currently in effect that allows Kentuckians to possess medical cannabis legally purchased in other states and provides legal protections for qualifying patients who obtain medical cannabis products from out-of-state.

But there are concerns around how enforceable the protections are, and Kulkarni said the measure has the opportunity to address the confusion around Beshear’s order.

“When you don’t address it early on at the same time as any legalization framework, if you don’t have expungement measures, you’re going to be ignoring a part of the population that still have low-level felony charges on the record that don’t need to be there anymore,” Kulkarni said.

The proposal now heads to the House. If it passes, it would go to Beshear’s desk to be signed into law.

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

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