Kentucky Senate votes to legalize medical marijuana in bipartisan vote

FRANKFORT, Ky. — After many years of tireless advocacy work to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky, Eric Crawford of Maysville was in disbelief Thursday evening shortly after the Senate voted to do so by a wide margin — setting up a clear path to passage into law in two weeks.

“I’m shocked,” said Crawford, the leading advocate for medical marijuana in the halls of Frankfort for the past decade. “Now it’s time for the House.”

Senate Bill 47 to legalize and regulate medical marijuana in Kentucky passed the Senate by a bipartisan 26-11 vote, the first time it has ever been given the opportunity for a floor vote in the chamber.

Sen. Steven West, R-Paris, the chief sponsor of SB 47, said on the floor that his five-year journey to push medical cannabis began when he met his constituent Crawford, a quadriplegic since a vehicle accident 30 years who says marijuana is the only safe and effective treatment for his severe pain and muscle spasms.

More:Kentucky Senate committee advances bill to legalize medical marijuana, as clock ticks

“It’s time for Kentucky to join the other 37 states that allow medical marijuana as an option for their citizens,” West said, adding that those who need medical relief from the drug should be able to do so “without being considered a criminal.”

The bill now heads to the House, where similar legislation has cleared the chamber two out of the past three years with large majorities. If the bill receives its first reading in the House before midnight Thursday, it could receive final passage into law in the chamber on March 30 — the last day of the 2023 session — after lawmakers return from the governor’s veto period.

If passed by the House and signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear — a vocal supporter of medical marijuana — Kentucky’s medical marijuana program would still be a ways off from launching, as it would go into effect at the beginning of 2025.

“I figured it was gonna take that long to set up the system that we didn’t have,” Crawford said. “Yeah, it’s a long hard wait, but I’m doing what I gotta do.”

More:Kentucky medical marijuana bill is still alive. It’s receiving a first-ever Senate hearing

Under SB 47, at least six medical conditions would make a person eligible to receive a medical marijuana card in the state’s program, including:

  • Any type or form of cancer regardless of stage
  • Chronic, severe, intractable, or debilitating pain
  • Epilepsy or any other intractable seizure disorder
  • Multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms, or spasticity
  • Chronic nausea that has proven resistant to other conventional medical treatments
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

A patient could also be eligible if diagnosed with any medical condition or disease for which the newly established Kentucky Center for Cannabis at the University of Kentucky determines through its data and research is “likely to receive medical, therapeutic, or palliative benefits from the use of medicinal cannabis.”

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services would be responsible for the implementation, operation, oversight and regulation of the program and its cultivators, dispensaries and producers. Card holders would need to be at least 18 years old and the program would prohibit smokable cannabis products.

While medical marijuana bills were blocked in the Senate in recent years due to lack of support in the Senate GOP’s socially conservative caucus, 19 Republicans voted for the bill Thursday, while 11 voted no. All seven Democrats in the chamber voted for the bill and were SB 47 co-sponsors.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer noted in his floor speech that he has been one of the most vocal opponents of medical marijuana in Frankfort for many years and is “not the kind of guy who changes his mind.” However, he said he did just that as he explained his vote for SB 47, moved by hearing personal stories of how the drug helped his constituents — even his own family.

Noting that his 93-year-old grandmother suffers from debilitating back pain, he said her solution to treat that pain is “a shot of bourbon before bed and marijuana cream on her knees.”

More:Will Kentucky finally pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana? The Senate will decide

Noting the ailments of veterans, children and others that could find relief with the drug, Sen. Steven Meredith, R-Leitchfield, said “shouldn’t we show them just a little bit of mercy?”

But not all Republicans had come around — including Senate President Robert Stivers, a longtime skeptic of medical marijuana who said he voted no because there is not enough research showing it is a safe and effective drug.

Sen. Gary Boswell, R-Owensboro, went much further, calling marijuana “the scourge of the earth” and “destroying our youth.”

While Kentucky’s medical marijuana program will not go into effect until 2025 — with West saying this would allow time for regulations and procedures to be put in place — there is currently some legal protection for certain individuals in the state due to executive action by the governor last year.

Beshear signed an executive order in 2022 to partially legalize medical marijuana, allowing certain people with 21 eligible medical conditions to obtain marijuana legally in other states and avoid prosecution for possessing or using the drug within Kentucky — hoping it would push the legislature to pass it under statute.

Reach reporter Joe Sonka at jsonka@courierjournal.com and follow him on Twitter at @joesonka.


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