Who Would Get To Sell Medical Weed?

[This story has been updated and clarified to reflect the House vote and amendments to the medical marijuana bill.]

When marijuana legalization first failed in Ohio in 2015, the deciding factor was what kind of businesses would be allowed to grow weed.

Now, Kentucky may legalize medical marijuana; the bill, HB 136, passed the House on Thursday (65-30) and now moves to the Senate for consideration.

But will the rules for handing out dispensary and other medicinal pot-related licenses get in the way?

What sunk Ohio’s chances of legalizing recreational marijuana was a provision that would have given growing licenses to companies that had contributed to the political campaign that made the ballot measure possible.

By contrast, Kentucky’s medical marijuana bill is “workable,” said Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national lobbying group that advocates for marijuana legalization, both medical and recreational.

“I think the sponsors of this bill have bent over backward to make it as patient-friendly as possible while recognizing the concerns that some of their colleagues have,” said Simon. “And they’ve tried their best to strike appropriate balances here.”

As written, Kentucky’s bill would require the state Department for Public Health to issue at least: 25 dispensary licenses, 15 cultivator licenses, five processor licenses and three producer licenses.

If the Department receives more applications than Kentucky’s market needs, it would award them based on a competitive application process, which would evaluate criteria including the suitability of the proposed locations, the potential owners’ and operators’ experience in pharmaceuticals, natural treatments and other relevant fields, their proposed business plan (including a “sufficient” amount of capital) and their plan for making medical marijuana affordable to veterans and those using social services.

Businesses would have to pay a licensing fee of $5,000 to $75,000, depending on whether they want to dispense, cultivate, process or produce pot.

States such as West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania have made it much more difficult for businesses to enter the marijuana market, Simon said. Barriers have included high licensing fees but also prohibitive capital requirements and lengthy and onerous application processes.

State Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, a co-sponsor of Kentucky’s medical marijuana bill, said his main goal in crafting the legislation was to make medical marijuana accessible to everyone in need of it, especially those in poverty.

As such, the state is also required to award at least one dispensary license per Kentucky Area Development District. There are 15 development districts in the state. Louisville’s includes Bullitt, Henry, Oldham, Shelby, Spencer and Trimble counties.

“I assume Louisville, with almost one-fifth of our population, will have its fair share of dispensaries,” said Nemes. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of places that don’t have much population, but they’ve got a lot of territory. So, you don’t want someone to have to drive two hours.”

Local governments could choose to not let medical marijuana businesses operate in their areas. Nemes said that he hopes more licenses than the 25 get approved, but he also doesn’t want Kentucky flooded with marijuana businesses.

“This is not recreational so we’re not going to saturate the market,” he said. “We’re only going to meet the need of patients.” Simon and Nemes are not happy about parts of Kentucky’s bill.

As a compromise to get the bill passed, Nemes’ bill does not allow patients to grow their own marijuana at home. “It would be better if indigent folks could grow a small amount to help keep costs down for them and make it accessible, but that was something I had to concede,” Nemes said.

Under new bill amendments passed on Thursday, to get a medical marijuana card, patients must receive written certification from a physician or advanced practice registered nurse with a special license. As the bill is currently written, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea or vomiting are all medical conditions that would be eligible for a card. A panel of eight doctors, four patient advocates and a pharmacist would be tasked with compiling a list of further eligible medical conditions.

On Feb. 12, Nemes’ bill passed its House committee 17-1. The lone dissenting voter, Rep. Kimberly Poore Moser, R-Taylor Mill, said that more research on medical marijuana is needed.

And after hours of testimony, it passed out of the House on Thursday.

The Senate is a different beast. Nemes believes that if the Senate voted on medical marijuana today, it would be close, but the chamber has not begun to discuss the bill as comprehensively as has the House.

“We’ve had a very, very in-depth conversation in the House about this for almost two years now,” said Nemes. “And the Senate, they’ve had the conversation over there, and they’ve listened to our conversation, but they’ve not had it anywhere near as in-depth as we’ve had in the House. And so we’ve started the process, and I feel good that the undecideds will come down on our side.”

As for Ohio, in 2016, less than a year after recreational marijuana legalization failed, its legislature approved the legalization of medical marijuana.

The state of Ohio devised plans to issue licenses based on geography and a scoring system. The process has been altered several times since being proposed.

This is common, according to Simon. Some states make bills more restrictive before passing them. Other states, including West Virginia, pass more bills loosening regulations after legalization is passed.

“So whatever Kentucky does pass, if it does pass this year, will certainly be revised by the legislature in the coming years,” said Simon. “And if there are provisions that are bad for patients that are not serving the patient population, we would certainly push for those to be addressed down the line in HB 136.”