The sponsor of a medical marijuana bill expected to filed for next year’s General Assembly session urged lawmakers Thursday to bring the bill before the full House and Senate for a vote.
If that happened, Rep. Jason Nemes told members of the interim judiciary committee in Frankfort, the bill is certain to become law. A medical cannabis bill sponsored by Nemes in the 2020 session passed the House, but died when the session was cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Committee members discussed Nemes’ bill and heard from a supporter, who said his use of marijuana for pain, resulting from an autoimmune disorder and a wreck that left him without the use of his arms and legs, essentially makes him a criminal in Kentucky. Meanwhile, a researcher with the University of Kentucky who has studied marijuana urged lawmakers to not pass a medical cannabis bill until there is more information available.
Nemes, a Louisville Republican, told committee members he became a supporter of making medical cannabis legal after talking to constituents who struggled with medical issues.
“When I ran for office, I was against medical marijuana,” Nemes said. But after looking into the subject, “I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and so does everyone up there (on the committee), that it helps people.”
Nemes said the bill “is the most responsible bill,” and that numerous revisions were made to meet the concerns of lawmakers.
The bill has the support of organizations like the Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Nurses Association, he said.
The bill would not allow people to grow their own marijuana. Rather, a person would have to have a real relationship with a physician and a “qualifying condition” in order to be approved to purchase cannabis products. The bill would also set up regulations and requirements for producers and distributors.
The idea, Nemes said, would be for the state to have 15 regulated marijuana cultivators and 25 dispensaries. A grower or dispensary that violated state regulations could have its license revoked.
Names said the bill would prohibit driving while using a medical cannabis product and would prohibit possession of cannabis products near schools. Medical cannabis products would not be subject to taxes when sold to a patient, but other taxes collected before then would be put into state and local trust funds to benefit the Department of Health, local government and law enforcement. A portion of tax revenue would be used to help qualifying patients who are indigent pay for medical cannabis products.
The bill would not open the door to a recreational marijuana law, because lawmakers are opposed to such a measure, Nemes said.
“I don’t support that,” Nemes said of recreational marijuana. “We don’t have the votes in the General Assembly.”
Shanna Babalonis, a assistant professor in the UK College of Medicine who has done marijuana research, told committee members physicians in Kentucky do not have the data to prescribe medical cannabis. Outside of people who work in palliative care, there’s limited understanding among physicians about issues such as cannabis dosages, or how much cannabis might benefit patients with certain ailments, Babalonis said.
“One of my major concerns about cannabis is its interaction with the opioid crisis,” she said, “our preliminary data does say cannabis makes opioids more abusable.
“If you ask the question: Is there convincing data that cannabis can decrease opioid deaths? … there’s no convincing data.”
Eric Crawford, a quadriplegic who also suffers from an autoimmune disorder, told lawmakers prescription opioids make his pain worse, and that cannabis helps alleviate the constant pain he suffers.
“I’m often viewed as a criminal in the state I love” for using marijuana for pain, Crawford said. “If I choose to use cannabis for my pain instead of the addicting opioids … I’m seen as a criminal.”
Cannabis helps reduce the pressure on Crawford’s eyes, as one of his health threats is a risk of blindness, he said.
“If medical cannabis were legal in Kentucky, I would have access to safe cannabis,” Crawford said.
Crawford told legislators he wants people to have access to medical cannabis if a physician recommends it as a treatment.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican and the committee’s co-chair, said Nemes has had numerous discussions with him about the bill and made changes to address his concerns.
“I don’t know if I’m going to vote for it, but I’m a lot closer,” Westerfield said. “There have been a number of improvements.”
Nemes said 36 states have medical cannabis laws. Part of the bill would allow local governments to put the issue of allowing medical cannabis in a community to a vote, similar to a wet-dry vote.
Nemes urged lawmakers to bring the bill for full votes in the House and Senate during next year’s session.
“We have the votes,” Nemes said. “We need to have the courage to vote.”