Medical cannabis bill will start in Senate; sponsor says Beshear issued order allowing it as ‘wedge issue’ and tool for re-election

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

State Sen. Stephen West said Dec. 13 that he will resume sponsoring medical marijuana legislation when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 3, and doesn’t think the state should wait two years for completion of cannabis research that the legislature authorized in the last session.

“I don’t believe we should wait. Of course, I’ll admit I’m totally biased on the subject, obviously,” West, R-Paris, told David “Kruser” Krusenklaus in an interview on Lexington’s WVLK. “But I will admit and concede that there has been a lack of study in the United States on this subject.”

The legislature tasked the University of Kentucky Cannabis Center with researching the health effects of the cannabis plant, including its risks and benefits when used to treat certain medical conditions, after the state Senate again refused to hear a House-passed bill to authorize medical marijuana.

The other major result of the bill’s failure was a Nov. 15 executive order by Gov. Andy Beshear that, beginning Jan. 1, allows possession of up to 8 ounces of cannabis for medical use by individuals who buy it in states where it is legal and have a doctor’s statement that they have one of 21 conditions treated with it.

West was asked if the order, which uses the governor’s pardon power, would be helpful or hurtful to getting a more comprehensive bill passed. He said he agreed with other Republicans (including the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville) who have said this would not be helpful.

“I agree 100 percent with Rep. Nemes,” West said. “The governor’s approach has not been helpful in getting this thing across the finish line. You know, I’m not going to be too critical, but you know we’re entering an election year and this issue polls through the roof; it’s a very popular issue. And I believe the governor was just wanting to use this as a wedge issue . . . not only a wedge issue as we go into session, but also for his upcoming campaign.” Beshear is on the ballot for re-election in 2023.

Beshear’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beshear, a Democrat, created a Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee that held meetings around the state and reported that 98,6% of Kentuckians who offered an opinion on its website supported medical marijuana. West said actual public support is likely lower, but still high: probably 85% or above. A Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that 90% of Kentuckians favor medical cannabis.

West said the legislation will start in the Senate this time because it has passed the House twice but failed in the Senate. He said Republican senators who favor it agreed at a recent caucus that he would take the lead because he has sponsored such legislation in previous sessions, though not this year.

“Over the past five years, there’s been progress, ” he said. The House last passed a medical marijuana bill in the 2022 session by a vote of 59-34 .”I’ve been here since 2015,” said West. “And my experience is that really any large-scale bill, in any subject that requires a lot of thought, takes a good four years to make it through the process. This is not unusual.”

West said if legislators want to move the bill, they could do so quickly: “Our members are well aware of the issue and all the back and forth on it. If we wanted to move something, I don’t think it would take a great deal of time.”

At least 37 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

West pointed to European studies that show the efficacy of medical marijuana and said anecdotally we know that there are conditions where it helps, such as seizure disorders and palliative care.

West told Kruser that his bill has not been filed yet because the Senate no longer allows senators to pre-file bills. He said as a starting point, he will be filing the same bill he filed in 2021 with the expectation that it will be changed during the legislative process.

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