Cannabis legislation has been hard to pass in Kentucky, which remains one of just 13 states with a total prohibition on marijuana on the books. Last year, a medical marijuana bill so restrictive it allowed non-smokable cannabis for only a handful of medical conditions passed in the House, but it did not receive a hearing in the Senate.
Amid that chronic inertia, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently issued an executive order granting preemptive pardons for the possession of medical cannabis for individuals suffering from 21 specific medical conditions with certification signed by their healthcare provider. These individuals, however, are only allowed to purchase cannabis outside of the state.
The governor has presented his executive order, which went into effect on Jan. 1, as an imperfect stopgap in place in the absence of legislation.
This year, following the order, Kentucky lawmakers have filed eight cannabis-related bills so far. Here’s a breakdown:
Bills on Possession
House Bill 98 (HB 98), introduced by Rep. Keturah Herron, reduces penalties for those charged with possession of controlled substances, including cannabis. If enacted, “harm reduction centers” will provide medical treatment, counseling, and drug screenings from healthcare professionals for those charged with possession of marijuana or other controlled substances. This bill will also reduce the penalty of possession of marijuana and controlled substances to 15 hours of community service and educational programming based on the substance with harm reduction centers. Currently, possession of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 45 days in jail. Meanwhile, possession of controlled substances is a class D felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
Louisville Rep. Nima Kulkarni, an outspoken cannabis advocate in the House, has filed two decriminalization bills.
House Bill 48 (HB 48) proposes giving voters a ballot question that would add language to the state constitution allowing Kentucky residents older than 21 to “possess, use, buy, or sell one ounce or less of cannabis” and to “cultivate, harvest, or store up to five cannabis plants for personal use” without any criminal sanctions. How state regulation and state approval will be determined is unclear, but the bill says that the Kentucky General Assembly would oversee the regulation process.
House Bill 47 (HB 47) would decriminalize marijuana possession without sending the issue to voters. It also allows for people previously convicted of possessing under an ounce of marijuana to have their record expunged.
Bills on Legalization
House Bill 22 (HB 22) and Senate Bill 51 (SB 51), the widest-reaching bills on cannabis so far, aim to legalize both medical and recreational (aka “adult-use”) marijuana, declaring full legalization “is in the best interest of the Commonwealth.” The bills, which would create a Cannabis Control Board to regulate marijuana, also do not allow employers to discriminate against employees who use marijuana during off-work hours as long as their use of cannabis does not impact their job.
Senate Bill 47 (SB 47) and House Bill 107 (HB 107) are narrower bills that would allow medical marijuana possession and use as long as the cannabis is not smoked. SB 47 appears to leave which medical conditions are covered up to doctors, making it less restrictive than a similar bill last year that listed only a handful of illnesses. HB 107 is the House’s counterpart to SB 47 and would establish “a medical cannabis program” that, like SB 47, would regulate a medical cannabis program under the newly formed Department for Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control.
Senate Bill 78 (SB 78) proposes a ballot question asking Kentucky voters about legalizing cannabis. If enacted, SB 78 would add language to the constitution legalizing medical marijuana and ensuring that patients and healthcare providers are not subjected to criminal sanctions.
Kentucky NORML Weighs In
Matthew Bratcher, executive director for the Kentucky chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said his group has been working directly with lawmakers to discuss cannabis legislation. Despite the past failures to pass cannabis legislation, he said he is optimistic this year about a medical marijuana bill passing — so long as one is actually discussed by the Senate.
“We really want to see a medical bill get a good hearing on the Senate floor. If it gets there, and it gets to the floor where they will talk about it, I feel that we will get the votes,” Bratcher told LEO.
Fearing people seeking medical cannabis under the governor’s executive order might still be prosecuted, Bratcher would also like lawmakers to “step up” and address the potential pitfalls of the executive order through legislation.
“With the executive order, people could be put in a lot of risk by transporting cannabis to and from, across state lines and stuff. Cannabis still isn’t legal,” he said. “Possession will be treated differently in Louisville. They’re not necessarily going to do more than a citation. But in rural areas, they’re going to arrest, and they’re going to let the courts sort it out.”