KET panel discusses bill to legalize medical cannabis in Kentucky

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Proponents and opponents of a bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky were on KET‘s Jan. 30 edition of “Kentucky Tonight,” with proponents saying Kentuckians are calling for legal access to cannabis and opponents saying doctors shouldn’t be asked to prescribe or recommend a substance based only on anecdotal evidence that it works.

“Passage of the medical marijuana law isn’t going to just magically bring marijuana to Kentucky. It’s already here,” Jaime Montalvo, founder of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana, told KET host Renee Shaw. “What we as patients are asking [for] is the regulation of cannabis so that we can go to a safe environment and purchase a product that is clean from people who are regulated by the state, you know, and are not there to sell us other potentially dangerous chemicals.”

Dr. Danesh Mazloomdoost, an anesthesiologist and degenerative specialist, told Shaw that it would be a stretch to define marijuana or cannabis as medicine, because research does not yet support that. “It has medicinal properties, but to call it medicine is a little bit of a misnomer because medicine is a product or compound that we know the pharmacology, the pharmacodynamics,” he said. “In other words, what impact it has on the body; what conditions . . . it’s applicable to; what are some of the contraindications; what are the risks? And we don’t really have any of that information. We don’t know what dosages are appropriate. We don’t know what an overdose or what excessive dosages are. So to call it medicine conveys a false sense of security.”

The Kentucky House of Representatives has passed two medical marijuana bills, most recently in 2022 with a vote of 59-34. Both bills died in the Senate. Because the bills keep getting shut down in the Senate, this year’s bill, Senate Bill 47, sponsored by Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, will start there.

Gov. Andy Beshear’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee reported that 98.6% of Kentuckians who offered an opinion on its website supported medical marijuana. A Kentucky Health Issues Poll for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky found that 90% of Kentuckians favor medical cannabis.

Shaw asked Sen. Phillip Wheeler, R-Pikeville, a primary co-sponsor of the bill, if he thought the medical marijuana bill would pass this year. Wheeler said, “I hesitate to speak for anybody but myself and the various co-sponsors of the bill, but I am optimistic that this may be the year that you see some action on it in the Senate. We have several new members, some of whom seem to be more open to the idea of medical cannabis.”

Earlier in January, Senate President Robert Stivers, who has long said more research is needed before a medical marijuana bill is passed, showed the first sign that he might be willing to compromise on this issue when he told Shaw Jan. 9 that he might be willing to approve medical marijuana in Kentucky on a very limited basis, to relieve patients’ pain at the end of their lives.

Ed Shemelya, national coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, said he opposed passing a medical marijuana law and instead said to allow the recent federal Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act to do its job.

“What that act did is . . . remove most of those barriers so we can conduct legitimate research into not only the beneficial components of this plant, but also the harmful consequences of it,” Shemelya said. “Absent that, if we were making a legislative decision to determine the efficacy and safety of a substance that isn’t grounded in science and isn’t rounded in research, is grounded in anecdotal stories that may or may not be correct.”

Further, he said diversion is occurring in each of the 37 states that medical marijuana is legal, along with increased incidences of impaired driving; people are experiencing THC psychosis from high-potency products; and treating cannabis as medicine will add to young people’s misconception that it is safer than alcohol.

Both sides criticized Beshear’s executive order that used his pardon power to allow people with a medical provider’s statement saying they have at least one of 21 specified medical conditions to possess up to eight ounces of cannabis for medical purposes in Kentucky, if bought legally in another state. The only adjoining state that currently allows such purchases by Kentuckians is Illinois.

Montalvo, who said he had just gotten a letter of confirmation from his doctor that he has multiple sclerosis, one of the medical conditions included in Beshear’s order, told Shaw that he fears the executive order could result in some patients thinking cannabis is legal and that it could lead to an influx of cases in the court system if police officers can’t decipher what is legal or not.

“I fear that the executive order was well intentioned, but has led or will lead to many more problems,” he said.
Wheeler told Shaw that while he shares the governor’s compassion for people wanting cannabis to treat afflictions, he was disappointed in Beshear for not recognizing it is the legislature’s job to set the policy and the governor’s job to execute it. He also said the order creates confusion among law enforcement and that the use of a prospective pardon creates a “slippery slope” in a state where marijuana possession is illegal. But he said he didn’t think the governor’s order would impact the bill’s process.

Beshear said he was prompted by the lack of legislative action. Wheeler said, “Sometimes it takes many sessions to get [a bill] through and that’s part of our constitutional democracy. And I don’t think it’s appropriate for this governor or any governor to circumvent that by things such as the executive order that he signed.”

Wheeler also revealed several components of the 155-page medical marijuana bill. He said it creates a safe marketplace to buy the products; does not include a list of conditions required to make a person eligible to receive it; requires a time-limited supply; allows flexibility for doctors and pharmacists; says cannabis can’t be grown independently; allows children to use it with parental consent; allows only doctors and doctors of osteopathic medicine to prescribe it; directs the Medical Licensure Board to handle cases of prescribing abuse; and gives oversight to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which would be renamed the Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control. He also said cannabis won’t be taxed.

The hour-long show opened with Preston Cantwell, who was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 4, telling the story of how medical cannabis has stopped his seizures, which several prescribed medications had failed to do. He said CBD, or cannabidiol, worked to reduce his seizures for a couple of years, but it eventually stopped working. He now uses “whole plant cannabis” and hasn’t had a seizure since 2019. “It has basically, just entirely cured it,” he said.

Julie Cantwell, his mother and founder of Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis, told KET that every few months they drive to Michigan to get their cannabis, which costs thousands of dollars. “We would like to be able to spend that here,” she said.
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