The Kentucky House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that would legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky, marking significant progress for a piece of legislation that has long stalled in the legislature.
House Bill 136 was approved 65-30 after more than two hours of debate and consideration of 11 floor amendments, eight of which were approved. They contained mostly minor changes.
A more skeptical Senate gets the bill next. If the bill becomes law, Kentucky would be the 34th state to legalize medical marijuana.
“We have momentum but we’re not there yet,” said Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, the bill’s sponsor. “Where we go from this is we go with strength to the Senate.”
The bill would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a list of conditions yet to be determined by a panel of 13 people — eight doctors, a pharmacist and four public advocates. An amendment passed on the House floor ensured that the list of conditions would include chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea or vomiting. All of those conditions have substantial or conclusive evidence that they are effectively treated by marijuana, according to Dr. Jeffery Block, an anesthesiologist with the University of Miami.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has expressed caution about legalizing medicinal marijuana, saying he wants to see more research into the drug. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which effectively restricts research on the drug.
“It’s a balancing test of do the goods outweigh the bads,” Stivers said earlier this month. “And we just haven’t had anything done on that.”
Stivers has said there is a “narrow path forward” for medical marijuana legislation and Nemes said he thinks his bill, which was supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House, will meet those requirements. Nemes said “we’ll see” when asked if he believes Stivers will allow the bill to advance.
The bill makes the Cabinet for Health and Family Services responsible for regulating medicinal marijuana and requires that a minimum of 25 medicinal marijuana dispensaries be set up throughout the state. Under current federal law, pharmacies are forbidden from selling medical marijuana.
Nemes and co-sponsor John Sims, D-Flemingsburg, faced opposition from socially conservative lawmakers who are philosophically opposed to any legislation that could expand the legal use of marijuana and fear that a push to legalize recreational use of the drug would come next.
“It’s going to come,” said Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington. “I hope it doesn’t, but you know it’s going to come.”
Nemes said he shares those “slippery slope concerns.” To assuage those fears, Nemes invited Block to testify in committee that the bill would contain enough regulations to prevent it from being abused. The bill is intended to only allow edibles or pills — it prohibits smoking the marijuana — and forbids colorful packaging that could attract children. It does not allow people to grow marijuana in their homes, but does allow for sale of the marijuana flower, which is often used to smoke.
“House Bill 136, if it is passed, would be the tightest medical marijuana bill in the country,” Nemes told lawmakers when introducing the bill.
Still, several conservatives rose to speak against the bill during debate, none more often than Rep. Danny Bentley, R-Russell. Bentley, a pharmacist, peppered Nemes with questions about the bill and raised concerns that medical marijuana would not be regulated by the FDA.
Other members raised concern that the federal government has not legalized marijuana, possibly putting the state in legal jeopardy. The federal government has not taken action against the 33 states that have already legalized medicinal marijuana.
The push for medical marijuana largely started as a grassroots movement, with advocates who illegally use the drug to treat their illnesses slowly convincing lawmakers of its efficacy. One of those lawmakers was House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill the past two years.
“I think there is compelling evidence that there are a lot of people deriving real benefit from it,” Osborne said. “And I think by and large it’s time to stop making those people criminals and try to seek that relief.”
Relief was the common refrain of lawmakers who said they supported the bill because it will help provide a tool for people who are suffering to feel better.
“Today this body has done something that will bring relief to many citizens in this commonwealth,” said Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green.