Rep. Rachel Roberts thinks Kentucky can do a better job than Ohio at legalizing recreational marijuana.
Ohio voters legalized recreational cannabis at the polls last November. But as of right now, no one can legally buy or sell recreational marijuana in the state. That may not change until September – the deadline for Ohio lawmakers to have a licensing framework in place for recreational marijuana retailers and growers statewide. Meanwhile, some Ohio officials say adults age 21 and older can now legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of recreational cannabis and grow cannabis at home under the voter-approved law.
That’s a “recipe for disaster,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told reporters last year. Roberts sees it as a cautionary tale for Kentuckians.
“Ohio politicians and Ohio legislators weren’t apparently listening to the will of their constituents,” Roberts (D-Newport) told LINK nky last week. “So their constituents had no choice but to go to a ballot initiative. The passage of that ballot initiative caught Ohio flat footed because it doesn’t appear anyone had really thought the process out. And it’s very complicated.”
Kentucky might be about to find out just how complicated. Last week, Roberts – the state House Democratic Whip – introduced a Kentucky adult-use recreational cannabis bill in the state House. The bill is identical to House Bill 90 that Roberts introduced in early January but she recently withdrew that bill and filed identical legislation under the apropos number HB 420 – a nod to “420,” a slang term associated with weed.
It’s a clever device to draw attention to a plant with a serious – some may say dark – history in the U.S. and Kentucky. Nationally, marijuana is the drug behind over 50% of all U.S. drug arrests. In Kentucky, there were over 300,000 people charged with a cannabis-related offense between 2002 and 2022, with a conviction rate of at least 50%, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Kentucky is one of only 18 states that still criminalizes cannabis use, per the report.
Aside from the legalization of medical cannabis in Kentucky – expected to roll out in Jan. 2025 for medicinal cardholders who qualify by having any of a handful of health conditions – very little is expected to change under the state’s cannabis laws. Right now in Kentucky, simple possession of marijuana (less than 8 ounces) remains a misdemeanor that can carry up to 45 days in jail and a potential fine. Selling marijuana can bring three months to as many as 20 years in prison under Kentucky law.
“These consequences have lasting, harmful effects on people’s economic security, employment, health, housing and ability to fully participate in community life. And these consequences often fall disproportionately on low-income and Black and brown Kentuckians,” according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Roberts’ bill would bring change. Possession would be legal under HB 420 for adults age 21 and older who buy from a licensed Kentucky retailer. The bill would also allow people over the age of 21 to share an ounce or less of marijuana as long as they don’t sell it.
To help people convicted of simple possession of marijuana in Kentucky over the years, the bill would require state courts to expunge (or erase) misdemeanor marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia convictions from a person’s criminal record upon their request.
Growing marijuana – now a crime that carries up to five years in prison per conviction in Kentucky – would be legal for state-licensed cultivators, with up to 150 plants allowed per licensed grower. Recreational marijuana in Kentucky would be taxed at 9% wholesale and be subject to both a 5% local tax and sales tax.
The first-ever legal recreational marijuana sales in the state would start on July 1, 2026.
Early revenue estimates that Roberts shared with LINK nky show recreational marijuana could net approximately 100 million in tax revenue for Kentucky – more than five times the projected annual tax revenue from sports betting, legalized and implemented statewide last year.
“Drawing the parallel to sports wagering is even more important at the moment because Ohio is going to be a full (cannabis) legalization state,” Roberts said. “We are continuing to leave money on the table. Make no mistake, cannabis is being grown in the state of Kentucky. It’s being consumed in the state of Kentucky, and it’s being sold in the state of Kentucky.”
Hemp is the only cannabis plant grown legally in Kentucky right now. But it’s not grown nearly as much as it used to be. In 2019, there were 26,500 acres of hemp planted in the state, according to the Kentucky department of agriculture. There were only 1,500 planted acres statewide last year.
The number of hemp growers has also decreased in Kentucky, from 978 in 2019 to 170 in 2023, according to department data. Roberts said farmers haven’t been able to sell enough hemp to make the crop a success. She believes recreational cannabis would be different. How the licensing process is handled, she said, is critical.
Under HB 420, a state board would be created to decide how many licenses there are at every level of cannabis production and sale. The law itself would not limit licensing so that the board can, as Roberts said, “find that sweet spot.”
For more than a year, Roberts worked on what would become HB 420 with hemp growers, retailers, manufacturers, those who had faced low-level cannabis possession charges and others. The challenge, she said, is to give businesses enough latitude to thrive in a highly regulated industry.
“Even trying to have the tightest guardrails possible with broad latitude in between, it’s still wildly complicated,” Roberts told LINK nky. The aim, she said, is “as good and thoughtful of a bill as possible because whether Kentucky goes to legalize or the feds do it first, someone better have thought all of this out. Otherwise it’s going to be even more complicated and potentially we will miss out on how good a marketplace this would be.”