The governor of Kentucky on Thursday explained how he plans to advance the issue of medical marijuana administratively, criticizing the Senate for failing to heed the will of voters and for “obstructing” reform by refusing to even give a hearing to a House-passed bill this year.
Gov. Andy Beshear (D) has made several comments about the possibility of taking executive action on cannabis policy in recent weeks, but with a House-passed medical marijuana legalization bill now dead with the end of the legislative session, he announced plans to make progress on his own.
He won’t be unilaterally legalizing cannabis—at least not yet. But he said that the first stage of the plan is to have his staff “begin analyzing options that we may have under the law for executive action on medical cannabis.”
Beshear is also convening a “Medical Cannabis Advisory Team” that will “travel around the state and listen in every corner of Kentucky for what you have to say about medical cannabis.”
When pressed on the legality of potential broader executive moves to provide patients with medical cannabis access, the governor reiterated that the administration is “looking through our legal options right now.”
“Certainly there is the criminal piece of it, but there are a number of potential options there,” he said. “My goal is to look at the full menu of options that can be out there.”
In the meantime, those who aren’t able to participate in the public events of the new advisory team to make their opinions heard can send feedback to [email protected]
The public engagement “gives us a chance over the next couple of months to be thoughtful, but we will be looking at action and a culmination into some form of action, depending on our legal options, at the end of that timeframe,” the governor said.
Beshear said that the lack of legislative results on medical cannabis in the state legislature has ultimately come down to “a couple of [lawmakers] that are out of touch with the vast majority of Kentuckians on this issue” who are “obstructing” reform.
“If they are not going to take action—not even give it a committee hearing in the Senate—I believe it’s my obligation to see what’s possible given the will of the people and their desire to move forward on this,” he said. “We’re behind Mississippi. That’s something that we can’t be OK with.”
“I’m worried about the veteran who deserves to have the same access in Kentucky as he or she does in another state. If you met a parent who can’t stop their child from having seizures yet, they’ve been to another state, and this works—they ought to have the opportunity to help that child. To me, this is just about doing the right thing. And it’s about serving the will of the people of Kentucky. I believe medical cannabis is overwhelmingly popular, but also demanded by the people of Kentucky, and I’m trying to do my role as a public servant.”
Beshear was also asked about broader recreational legalization at the briefing, and he said that the state does “need to look at the decriminalization aspect” of marijuana, though he caveated that there are currently “very, very few arrests” for possession alone in the state.
“You’ve got to work pretty hard to get arrested for possession of marijuana right now,” he said. “Nobody needs to go to jail—ultimately causing them loss of job, being a part of their family—for possession of marijuana, and it is very rare that that happens right now. But the fact that it continues to happen, it shows that we’re more than a little outdated on that side.”
The medical cannabis legalization bill from Rep. Jason Nemes (R) that passed the House last month did not get a required Senate reading ahead of a legislative deadline to advance this session, but there were some who held out hope that its provisions could have been attached to separate, still-alive legislation before time ran out on the session.
That was some wishful thinking, especially in light of recent remarks from Senate leadership challenging or outright opposing the idea of passing medical marijuana reform this year.
Senate President Robert Stivers (R) recognized that time was running short to advance a bill to legalize medical cannabis in the state, and he said earlier this month that it’s more likely the chamber will advance separate House-passed legislation to create a marijuana research center this session. That bill ended up passing.
Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R), meanwhile, steadfastly opposes the broader medical cannabis policy change, having warned that it’s a fast-track to full legalization. He said last month that the House-passed medical marijuana legislation has no chance of passing this session and it’s “done for the year.”
“I know my constituents are for it,” Thayer, who owns a whiskey distillery, said during a televised panel in January. “But this is a republic, and they elect us to go to Frankfort and make decisions on their behalf—and if they don’t like it, they can take it out on me in the next election.”
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Democratic leaders from both chambers, meanwhile, said in January that legalizing medical marijuana will be a top legislative priority for this year’s session. And in the spirit, Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) and two other colleagues filed their own legalization measures in February.
The companion legislation—SB 186 and HB 521—is dubbed LETT’s Grow, an acronym built of the bills’ main components: Legalizing sales, expunging crimes, treatment through medical use and taxing of adult-use sales.
For his part, Nemes filed an earlier medical legalization bill in 2020 that soundly passed the House but later died in the Senate without a vote amid the early part of the coronavirus pandemic. He reintroduced the legislation for the 2021 session, but it did not advance.
Nemes has continually expressed confidence that the reform legislation would advance through the legislature if only leadership had the “courage” to put it to a vote.
While Beshear has said that his focus would be on getting medical cannabis enacted this year, he said he also supported legislation introduced by Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D) in November that would simply prevent people from being incarcerated over marijuana for any use, saying he’s in favor of that policy.
Kulkarni’s bill would legalize the possession and personal cultivation of cannabis, but it doesn’t provide a regulatory framework for commercial sales.
The governor also voiced support for broader legalization late last year, saying that it’s “time we joined so many other states in doing the right thing.” He added that Kentucky farmers would be well positioned to grow and sell cannabis to other states.
A poll released in 2020 found that nine out of 10 Kentucky residents support legalizing medical marijuana, and almost 60 percent say cannabis should be legal under “any circumstances.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.