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Pending bill would accelerate Kentucky medical marijuana licensing, not expand conditions

Cannabis growing in a field
Matteo Paganelli
/
Unsplash

A GOP lawmaker believes his bill to move up the licensing timeline for medical cannabis businesses in Kentucky will pass into law before the end of the session.

As the 2024 session of the Kentucky General Assembly winds to a close, pending legislation in the Senate would speed up the timeline of the state’s medical cannabis program, while still preserving the ability of local governments to opt out.

Last year’s bill from Republican Sen. Stephen West of Paris to create the medical marijuana program said the state could only begin issuing licenses for cultivators, processors, producers and dispensaries on Jan. 1 of 2025.

West and the administration of Gov. Andy Beshear had discussions last year on how to accelerate that timeline, as many expected cannabis to not be available for patients to buy at dispensaries until the middle of 2025, months after patients would be deemed eligible.

GOP Rep. Jason Nemes of Middletown says he expects an amended version of his House Bill 829 to advance through the Senate just before the end of the session in April, which could allow businesses to start receiving licenses from the administration as early as this summer so that cannabis will be available for patients in early 2025.

While HB 829 would incorporate some elements of Senate Bill 337, filed in February by West, Nemes says it would drop West’s proposal to expand the list of eligible medical conditions from 6 to 21, which were recommended by two groups and Beshear earlier this year.

The new Kentucky Medical Cannabis Program under the Cabinet for Health and Family Services is expected to release its final regulations on licensing applications by July 1, followed by a three-month public comment period.

In addition to expanding eligible medical conditions, West’s bill would also move up the licensing timeline to this summer, but it appears to have stalled, having still not received a committee hearing in the Senate.

However, HB 829 of Nemes has already cleared the House and could be heard by a special Senate committee by Thursday, which is the last legislative day before the governor's 10-day veto period begins.

Even if it doesn’t clear a Senate committee meeting by Thursday, Nemes says he is confident it would clear the Senate when the legislature returns in April for the final two days of the session and not be under the threat of a Beshear veto — so long as it receives at least the first of its required three readings in the Senate by Thursday.

Though its original version did not move up the licensing timeline from Jan. 1, HB 829 was amended in a House committee to move this up to Aug. 1 of this year.

This provision to move up the timeline drew the concern of local government officials, as the bill passed last year allowed counties and cities to pass laws or allow voter referendums to opt out of the medical cannabis program. However, local governments choosing to do so would have to make such a move in 2024, or at least before any businesses in their jurisdiction received a license from the state in 2025.

Under that law, businesses receiving a license from the state would be grandfathered in, so that local governments could not later opt out of the program and put them out of business after expending significant capital.

Responding to the concerns of the Kentucky League of Cities, Nemes attached a floor amendment to HB 829 when it passed the House that would still allow local governments to take action to opt out of the program by the end of 2024 and negate any license received by a business inside its jurisdiction earlier that year. That ability to negate previously issued licenses would lapse at the beginning of 2025.

J.D. Chaney, the executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, said that amendment to HB 829 achieves “that balance between speeding up license issuance and still maintaining the ability for local input.”

Chaney said he expected most local governments to advance ordinances related to zoning and land use for certain types of cannabis licensees, but not to try to opt out of the program.

“There might be some local communities that want to put it to a vote and use those provisions, but they're not in the hundreds, or even dozens, probably, that want to use that,” Chaney said.

Nemes said the current version of HB 829 preserves local governments’ ability to opt out of the program, while still letting businesses and the administration get a jump start on licensing. He added that it should be best practice for businesses seeking a license to speak in advance with local officials about their intentions and gauge whether they will face resistance before investing.

“Businesses should know or have a good feeling for the local government's position before they move in and seek the license,” Nemes said.

While Beshear often touts how Kentucky’s new medical marijuana program will launch on Jan. 1, many observers have noted that unless this licensing timeline is significantly moved up, patients would be unlikely to have access to medical marijuana until several months into 2025.

Paula Savchenko, an attorney with Cannacore Group and PS Law Group that has advised several businesses considering investing in Kentucky’s program, said patients likely wouldn’t have access to medication until the middle of the year under current law, unless it is amended to speed up licensing. She noted it can take as much as six months in other states for licensing applications to be approved, and seeds can’t be planted in secure, indoor facilities until businesses have a license in Kentucky.

“Let's say somebody has a turnkey facility and they're ready to go, put plants in the ground on day one of getting their license,” Savchenko said. “It's still going to take four months before they can turn that around and get it into a store.”

Sam Flynn, the executive director of the new Kentucky Medical Cannabis Program, said earlier this month their next round of regulations outlining the details of the licensing and application process has to be completed by July 1, but added that “we intend to be ahead of schedule.” When those are released, a three-month public comment period will begin.

Flynn said the “appetite and the enthusiasm” from businesses inquiring about being involved in the state’s new program has been “overwhelming,” estimating that more than 100 businesses in and outside of Kentucky have expressed interest.

Spokespersons for Beshear and the administration’s medical cannabis office did not respond to a request for comment on whether they approve of the specific method for speeding up the licensure timeline under the current version of HB 829.

While medical cannabis advocates were heartened to see West’s original bill expanding the list of eligible medical conditions to 21, Nemes says he is only incorporating “small, technical changes” from SB 337, keeping the conditions at six.

Nemes said he didn’t think his bill would pass if it added these conditions, noting that the votes of some Republicans who were on the fence about legalizing medical marijuana last year were secured by keeping the number of conditions limited.

“Commitments were made last year to pass the bill in the first place,” Nemes said. “And so before the program starts, it's not right to expand the conditions.”

West has not responded to multiple messages over the past week on what medical cannabis legislation will advance at the close of the session.

The law passed in 2023 said patients were only eligible for medical cannabis if they have been diagnosed with cancer, severe pain, epilepsy or other seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis or muscle spasms, chronic nausea or post-traumatic stress disorder. West’s SB 337 would add more than a dozen conditions to that list, including:

  • HIV and AIDS
  • ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cachexia or wasting syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Glaucoma
  • Hepatitis C
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Neuropathies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Any terminal illness

These same conditions were recommended to be added to the law in January by the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Workgroup, which was created by Beshear to study the issue. The Board of Physicians and Advisors — a group of nine doctors and nurses created by the new medical marijuana law — also recommended adding all of the same conditions but Hepatitis C.
In a January press conference, Beshear said adding these medical conditions to the law would increase the number of eligible Kentuckians by 437,000.

Democratic lawmakers have filed several bills to not just expand the list of eligible medical conditions, but legalize and decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana, though none have advanced in both GOP-dominated chambers.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.