Fear of the law for those seeking the medicinal value of cannabis is perhaps no greater than in Kentucky, despite 90% of state’s residents supporting legalization.

One of 13 states remaining to legalize the plant for medical purposes, Kentucky lawmakers offered hope to reform on March 10, when the House Judiciary Committee voted, 15-1, in a near unanimous decision to advance House Bill 136.

The legislation would allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis for four qualifying conditions: multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy and nausea, the latter with a focus on providing access for cancer patients. It would prohibit smoking as a form of use.

Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts proposed an amendment for the House floor to consider that would add post-traumatic stress disorder to that list.

Roberts was one of three Kentucky lawmakers who introduced an adult-use cannabis proposal last month.

RELATED: Kentucky Lawmakers Introduce Adult-Use Bill: LETT’s Grow

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, the medical bill’s primary sponsor, said his proposal features layers of safeguards and has tight restrictions in an effort to gain support from his colleagues, The Associated Press reported.

“The best part about this bill is it lets sick people get safe product,” he said. “This is not a wink, wink, nod, nod to get to recreational.”

An earlier version of his bill passed the House in a 65-30 vote in 2020 before stalling in the Senate, which continued to resist consideration of the issue in 2021.

The upper chamber’s pushback came on the heels of a February 2020 Kentucky Health Issues Poll that showed nine out of 10 Kentucky adults favored legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.

That poll followed the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky 2019 health policy conference, which focused on the public health impacts of loosening legal restrictions on cannabis.

“What we heard at the forum—and what this poll confirms—is that support for medical marijuana is very strong, but we also learned that it’s well ahead of the science showing that marijuana is safe and effective for most of the medical conditions claimed by pro-legalization advocates,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the foundation. “Despite the continuing lack of evidence, dozens of states have legalized medical marijuana. If Kentucky follows suit, our goal must be to put in place measures to protect the public health going forward.”

The lack of reform has had wide-ranging consequences.

Under Kentucky’s current law, a first-time offense for the possession of up to 8 ounces of cannabis carries a maximum penalty of 45 days of incarceration and up to a $250 fine, according to reform organization NORML.

In addition, Kentucky ranks second in the nation for the largest racial disparity in cannabis arrests, with Black Kentuckians being 9.4 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white Kentuckians, according to reform group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

In 2019, Kentucky law enforcement officers made more than 4,200 arrests for cannabis, and that was with only 82% of the state’s enforcement agencies reporting their numbers, according to MPP.

As a result of current laws, potential medical cannabis patients in Kentucky are unable to legally access a plant that provides for an alternative to pharmaceuticals, such as opioids.

Eric Crawford, a legalization advocate, spoke in support of H.B. 136 on Thursday, describing his personal struggles living as a paraplegic following a car accident involving an 1,800-pound cow landing on his head, the Herald Leader reported.

“Medical cannabis allows me to be a more productive member of society and gives me a better quality of life,” he said. “It helps me be a better husband, son and friend. There’s not one of you on this committee that would think I’d be better off taking opioids.”

Crawford added that Kentucky’s current laws make sick people criminals.

Certain provisions of the legislation, which now heads to the full House for consideration, would take effect his summer if passed.]]>