Medical marijuana advocates more hopeful it will pass, but main foe still cites lack of evidence; bill asks feds to do more research image

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill to legalize marijuana for medical purposes has been filed in the Kentucky General Assembly, with great hopes by advocates in the House, but the Senate remains a tough sell.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, told Tom Latek of Kentucky Today that support for the measure is growing and he’s optimistic it will pass this year.

“We’ve talked about it in the Republican Caucus and the majority of the caucus supports it,” he said.

House Bill 136 offers a list of qualifying medical conditions for which marijuana can be prescribed, such as terminal illness and epilepsy, but doesn’t limit prescribing to those conditions and allows physicians to prescribe marijuana to their patients as long as they have a “bona fide” relationship.

So far, the bill has 42 sponsors, including House Speaker David Osborne. It has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has said that he wouldn’t support a medical marijuana bill without medical studies to back it up. Few such studies have been done, and they don’t appear to provide the sort of evidence that Stivers says he is seeking.

The annual Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky policy forum, held in September, focused on what the science says about medical marijuana, and the general consensus from leading researchers is that medical benefits haven’t been proven and more research is needed.

Marijuana is legal medicine in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states, most recently Illinois, the first bordering Kentucky.

Rep. Danny Bentley

House Concurrent Resolution 5, which asks the federal government to expedite research on the safety efficacy of medical marijuana, cleared the House Health and Family Services committee Jan. 16. This is the fourth year row Republican Rep. Danny Bentley has filed the resolution.

To conduct research on marijuana’s medicinal properties, the federal government would have to move marijuana from a Schedule I, a list of drugs with no medicinal use, to Schedule II.

“I’m asking for safety and efficacy on a chemical where a plant has five to six hundred compounds in it and close to 600 related to THC,” said Bentley, a pharmacist from Russell in Greenup County. “Safety and efficacy is my concern.” THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

Bentley expressed concerns about the increasing strength of cannabis products and noted some untoward side-effects that are often overlooked, including the dangers of using it during pregnancy, its affect on the developing IQ of a young person, heart attacks, respiratory issues and the increased risk of schizophrenia, marijuana-use disorder and cannibinoid hyperemisis syndrome.

“It’s not your grandma’s marijuana,” he said.

Bentley assured his colleagues that his resolution would have no effect on Kentucky law in the event a medical marijuana bill was passed. “This is a concurrent resolution asking that they do more research,” he said. Later adding, “I’m not against the drug, I’m for the safety of the people of the commonwealth,” referring to the state’s constitution that also calls for “safety and happiness.”

A medical marijuana bill passed the House Judiciary Committee 16-1 last year, but with only five days left in the legislative session and opposition in the Senate, it did not get a vote on the House floor.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has voiced his support of medical marijuana and has indicated it could also be taxed as a way to bring in some much needed revenue to the state — though this doesn’t seem likely to happen, because Republicans who control the legislature say it shouldn’t be taxed.

At a Jan. 15 press briefing by House Republican leaders to discuss the bill, Osborne said, “There’s truly no interest in taxing medicine.”

Sen. Chris McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said in December that if medical cannabis was deemed to be “a pharmaceutical, we don’t tax pharmaceuticals in this state, and we’re not going to start.” Prescription drugs are exempt from the state sales tax.

The bill’s primary sponsor also does not support taxing it as a way to generate revenue for the state.

“At the retail level, we don’t want to tax it,” Nemes told Spectrum News. “We don’t want to make a dollar off of medical marijuana because if you do that, you make it off of the back of sick people and poor people.”

The bill would tax marijuana growers and processors at 12 percent, but would not tax dispensaries.

The money from these taxes would go into two medicinal-marijuana trust funds, with 80% going to a state fund and 20% to a local fund. The money could be used for the cost of police enforcement, to help people who need a marijuana prescription but can’t afford it, and costs of running the program.

The bill would also allow municipalities to prohibit marijuana businesses from setting up in their jurisdictions.

Rep. Jason Nemes

Nemes explained some of the details of the bill in a Jan. 15 interview with Tom Latek with Kentucky Today.

He told Latek that the bill does not allow smoking marijuana, and is mostly for pills and oils, with an opportunity for inhalers. “This is a no-smoking bill,” he said. And the food forms of the products cannot be in any form that is attractive to children, like gummies or suckers, he added.

The bill will require physicians who want to prescribe medical marijuana to be approved by the state Board of Medical Licensure, and be logged into the prescription-drug monitoring program KASPER, which stands for Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting.

Nemes added that the patient must have a “bona fide physician-patient relationship” to get medical marijuana, but “If the physician says it will help, then the patient can get a medical marijuana card,” he told Latek.

The bill also has rules governing those who would test, grow, process and dispense the products, and local law enforcement will have access to everything, he said.

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