Legislation to legalize medical cannabis cleared the Kentucky House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
House Bill 136 was overwhelmingly approved in a vote of 16 to one after committee members heard from constituents who suffer from health problems such as epilepsy and chronic pain. Like so many others, these conditions produce symptoms that have been responsive to medical cannabis treatments in other states where the plant is available to patients with a physician’s recommendation, like Illinois and Ohio.
During an impactful presentation to the judiciary committee, Cassie Everett, a Kentuckian who lives in Louisville, displayed a bag containing all of the prescription drugs she is required to take each day for the treatment of epilepsy.
“To just think that I have an option of living a life without all the side effects of the medication and waking up groggy every day, I mean that’s unbelievable,” said Everett as she addressed the committee.
Everett’s neurologist has recommended that she use cannabis to reduce the frequency and severity of the seizures caused by her condition, but she refuses to try it while it remains illegal in the Bluegrass State.
“I honestly just want a better option. I would like to have the option without breaking the law,” Everett said. “I personally have never tried medical marijuana, but I would like to have the choice.”
Eric Crawford, a resident of Mason County, is another medical cannabis proponent who provided anecdotal evidence at the committee hearing. Living with a spinal cord injury sustained during a car crash, Crawford admits to using cannabis instead of prescription painkillers to treat his chronic pain and muscle spasms.
“I am viewed as a criminal in the state I love,” Crawford said during his testimony. According to Crawford, cannabis is more than just a medication, it is a “self-preservation tool for the longevity of my life.”
Under current state law, it is illegal to possess any amount of cannabis, even if it is just an amount for personal use. Any person caught in possession of cannabis in Kentucky may be charged with a class B misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 45 days in jail, a $250 fine, or both. Cultivating five or more plants at home is considered to be a class D felony, punishable by five to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
The Legislation: HB 136
HB 136 was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 43 state representatives, including Jason Nemes (R-Louisville), Diane St. Onge (R-Fort Wright), and Charles Booker (D-Louisville).
“This is for the people who have not been able to be treated by traditional medicine,” said St. Onge. “This bill is solely a medical marijuana bill. It is not recreational in nature at all.”
If HB 136 becomes law, the cannabis sold at medical dispensaries would be required to have been grown and processed within the state of Kentucky. Program regulation and licensing would be the responsibility of the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control. Farmers could apply for a license to cultivate the crop, and processors, retailers, and labs testing facilities could also apply for separate business licenses.
Bill sponsors do not intend for the state to profit from the suffering of constituents through the sale of medical cannabis, therefore no sales tax is to be charged on dispensary purchases. There will be a small excise tax associated with each transaction to cover the cost of program regulation and the indigent patient fund.
Getting HB 136 a committee hearing was a struggle, according to sponsors, and the legislation had to be altered from its original form in order to be considered. Home cultivation and smoking, arguably the most effective method of cannabinoid delivery, were removed from the proposal in the final version.
Medical cannabis would be available in ingestible forms like edibles, capsules, tinctures, and oils, under HB 136. Smoking dried cannabis flower would not be an approved method of administration for medical cannabis patients in Kentucky under the revised version of this proposal. Medical cannabis law in Florida was initially structured similarly, but the smoking ban is in the process of being repealed at this time.
“We’re going to try to push it onto the House floor, we’re going to try to push it all the way through both chambers,” Nemes said. “If we can’t get it all the way, then we’re going into the interim with this momentum behind us, and we’ll be back again next year.”
With so few days remaining in this legislative session, HB 136 is not expected to advance further, but the bill sponsors are not giving up hope.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe it’s not probable, but it’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings,” said Nemes.
If HB 136 were to miraculously make it to the desk of Republican Governor Matthew Bevin, he has expressed that he would sign the bill into law.
This is not the first time legislators have proposed to legalize cannabis for medical use in Kentucky. Similar legislation, with only about half the amount of sponsors, failed last year.