Medical marijuana gets new push in Kentucky from Republican lawmakers

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Medical marijuana supporters plan to file their latest bill in the Kentucky legislature Wednesday, in hopes of joining 33 other states that allow cannabis use for serious health problems.

Rep. Diane St. Onge, a Fort Wright Republican, is sponsoring House Bill 136 with Republican Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville and others.

“It is time to allow doctors to have this option for their patients,” Nemes said.

Last year, despite growing support for medical marijuana nationwide, Kentucky’s House Judiciary Committee voted down a similar medical marijuana bill. But Nemes and St. Onge said the newest bill seeks to allay past concerns about whether the law provides sufficient regulation.

Supporters say marijuana can combat side effects for conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The bill does not list any conditions but leaves that up to doctors to decide when to recommend it.

“We’re trying to address the 40,000 to 60,000 Kentuckians who are not having symptoms addressed by conventional medicines,” St. Onge said. “Everything would be monitored and regulated.”

The latest effort faces skepticism from lawmakers, including Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, and it comes during a short legislative session likely to be dominated by pressing concerns about the state’s pension crisis.

Critics argue more research is needed on its long-term effects, and fear it could too easily get into the hands of those who aren’t ill. Stivers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But backers said they’ve provided more studies to Stivers. Sen. Dan Seum, a Bullitt County Republican who supports the bill, said he’s hopeful for support in the Senate. Seum said he “smoked a joint” after cancer treatment a number of years ago instead of taking opioid painkillers.

“And guess what? No nausea,” said Seum, who plans to co-sponsor a similar bill in the Senate.

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The Kentucky State Police said they had no position on it, but some law enforcement groups oppose the measure, said Nemes. He also acknowledged that some medical organizations might bar their doctors from making recommendations for cannabis.

The measure would pay for itself but not generate significant new tax revenue, St. Onge said.

Gov. Matt Bevin has previously rejected any idea of fully legalizing marijuana but has said he could be open to legalizing medical marijuana if it was properly regulated.

Under the bill, the state would issue licenses for medical marijuana cultivation, processing, and dispensaries across the state. To use marijuana, residents would need to obtain a recommendation from a health practitioner registered to administer controlled substances and meet certain requirements.

Users would have to adhere to restrictions, including limits on how much cannabis they can have at one time, and could face penalties for distributing the drug. Health providers who recommend cannabis would be tracked by the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure to avoid the equivalent of “pill mills” that sprang up with pain pills.

Cities could vote to ban dispensaries from opening. And qualified cardholders could grow up to six mature marijuana plants. Law enforcement would know which card carriers had a license to grow marijuana.

There could be no advertising or public consumption of the drug. Recent felons could not participate. And licenses would be handled by the Alcoholic Beverage Control agency

Michael Raus, a founder of Kentucky BlueGrass Cannabis LLC, said he plans to hire workers for his business to grow and supply users if the bill passes.

“It’s really going to help thousands of Kentuckians that have not only serious illnesses,” he said. “And it will start an entirely new industry with high-paying jobs, which Kentucky needs.”

Last year, politicians such as Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul supported medical marijuana. Some have argued it could be an alternative to opioid pain medications that have caused an addiction crisis in Kentucky.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that states with medical marijuana were associated with declines in opioid prescriptions.

In 2017, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine review of the health effects of using cannabis and cannabis-derived products concluded there was an overall lack of definitive evidence on the health implications of cannabis use.

But St. Onge said that’s because its classification as a dangerous drug has stymied research, and she added there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust survey, about 62 percent of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legalized.

Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois and Missouri are among states that have legalized medicinal marijuana, along with other countries including Canada.

“And remember,” Seum said. “Kentucky grows the best.”

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Written by Chris Kenning. Cross-posted from the
Courier-Journal via the Kentucky Press News Service.