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A man trims a cannabis plant, by FatCamera via iStock

Kentucky State Senate Passes Republican-Led Medical Marijuana Effort

High There

By High There

March 16, 2022

“This bill is no joke. This is a law enforcement-heavy, […] medication-heavy bill. This is not a wink-wink nod-nod to get to recreational. I don’t want to slouch toward recreational.”

So says Rep. Jason Nemes (R) of Kentucky, whose legislation for medical marijuana access in the state was recently passed by the Kentucky House Judiciary Committee in a 15-1 vote.

The bluegrass state of Kentucky, widely known for its traditions of bourbon, horse racing, tobacco and other forms of vice, has long resisted cannabis legislation; this is despite KY state Senator Mitch McConnell being a driving force behind the 2018 Farm Bill’s provisions for growing hemp, as well as Kentucky’s position as one of America’s top hemp-growing states.

Similar legislation from Rep. Nemes was shot down both in 2020 and 2021, with concerns from top GOP leadership about lack of restrictions ultimately leading to the bill’s prior demise – and current adjustments for the 2022 session.

Multiple Cannabis Legislation Efforts In Competition

The legislation – HB 136 – is one of several competing cannabis laws up for consideration by the Kentucky government during the 2022 season. Also being viewed by the legislature are SB 186, an adult-use recreational bill introduced by state Democrats, and HB 170, a bill designed to make all forms of “intoxicating hemp-derived products” that “mimics the intoxicating effects of Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol”; this includes HHC, THC-O and all “delta” forms of THC (Delta-8, Delta-9, Delta-6, Delta-1, etc.).

Of the three, HB 170 and HB 136 have already passed one phase of the legislative process, now moving on to either the KY state House (for HB 170) or the state Senate (for HB 136); SB 186 has yet to be viewed in this season. All three pieces of legislation will face a Democratic minority in both the House and Senate, and despite the Republican sponsorship of HB 136 it may still face an uphill battle.

Bills Face Opposition, But Not Without Support

Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R), part owner of the “Kentucky Senator Bourbon” distillery, has been a staunch opponent of any cannabis legalization. During a discussion panel televised by KET public broadcasting earlier this year, the Senator was quoted as saying “I know my constituents are for [cannabis reform], but this is a republic, and they elect us to go to Frankfort and make decisions on their behalf – and if they don’t like it, they can take it out on me in the next election.”

Despite strong opposition, cannabis legislation in the state does have a friend in a high position – namely Kentucky state Governor Andy Beshear (D), who has called medical marijuana “the future” for the state, and has supported allowing Kentucky farmers to grow cannabis for sale to other states, which is a current impossibility, given federal law regarding interstate cannabis commerce.

Meanwhile, Kentucky citizens have been asking for cannabis legalization for quite some time. A 2020 poll jointly produced by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Interact for Health showed that 90% of KY residents supported some fashion of medical marijuana legislation, while 6 out of 10 believed that cannabis should be “legalized under any circumstances”; these results were often agnostic of party affiliation, with both Democratic and Republican voters showing similar desires for medical marijuana legalization efforts.

KY Hemp Businesses Prepare For Worst-Case Scenarios

Unclear is what to expect if both one of the competing medical/recreational bills pass along with the blanket “intoxicating hemp-derived product” ban of HB 170, though local Kentucky businesses are already planning for the worst.

Robert Matheny, owner of the Nicholasville-based retail store “KY CBD Farmacy”, spoke with concern that banning the naturally-occuring cannabinoid could take vital revenue away from the state. “If you take Delta 8 and all these other cannabinoids away from these farmers to grow or to process, all it does is move that revenue right into another state.” Matheny further added “Whenever I got a debilitating back injury [and took Delta-8] the high wasn’t there, it allowed me to function, just like a pain pill except it’s not addictive.”

He continued, saying “It would be detrimental to a lot of Kentuckians, to take away any cannabinoid that’s helping them, that’s not a pharmaceutical, that’s not a bottle of alcohol, we need these to help our people.”

Each having cleared one of the two congressional branches, both HB 170 and HB 136 will now need to clear the other before being passed to Gov. Beshear for final approval. Democratic alternative SB 186 has been introduced to the Senate and is currently awaiting vote.

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