A Kentucky legislative committee voted on Thursday to advance a bill to legalize medical cannabis two days after the legislation gained the endorsement of a key state senator. The measure, House Bill 136, was passed with strong bipartisan support by the House Judiciary Committee with a vote of 15-1.
Under the measure from Republican Representative Jason Nemes, patients with one or more specified medical conditions would be able to receive a recommendation to use cannabis medicinally. Qualifying conditions to use medical cannabis include multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy and nausea. Nemes told his colleagues that the bill would help sick people.
“I think the debate is over, with respect to whether or not medical cannabis helps people,” Nemes said. “I don’t think there’s anybody, even the staunchest opponents, who say it doesn’t help some people.”
The legislation also establishes a regulatory framework to govern medical cannabis cultivators, processors, dispensaries and testing laboratories. The Kentucky House of Representatives passed similar legislation in 2020 but the bill failed to gain the approval of the state Senate.
At Thursday’s committee hearing, Nemes said that he is not in favor of legalizing recreational weed and was once opposed to legalizing medical cannabis. But after talking to patients and experts, he has changed his stance on the issue.
“I’ll never forget this mother leaning forward and touching my hand. She told me what it meant to her child, and they all went around the room and said what it meant to them,” Nemes told his colleagues on the committee. “And I thought, here’s good people, real good people, and I disagree with them. So, I was starting to question it. I talked to physicians, did a lot of research on the issue.”
Kentucky Lawmakers Hear from Medical Cannabis Patient
The committee heard from Eric Crawford, who was paralyzed in a 1994 auto collision. He testified that cannabis has successfully treated symptoms that pharmaceuticals were unable to help.
“Medical cannabis relaxes my continuous uncontrollable muscle spasms. Medical cannabis relieves my constant chronic pain. Cannabis helps me,” he said. “Medical cannabis allows me to be a more productive member of society and gives me a better quality of life. It allows me to be a better husband, son and friend than the pharmaceutical allowed.”
Crawford also told lawmakers that he felt his state was letting him down by failing to approve a medicine that works for him.
“We all deserve legal access to a safe product without fear of the law,” he added. “Don’t make sick people criminals.”
Nemes acknowledged that the bill has provisions that will result in a tightly restrictive medical cannabis program, including a limited list of qualifying medical conditions and measures that allow local governments to opt out of legalization. The legislation also prohibits smoking cannabis. Nemes said the bill is “tighter” than he would have preferred to help gain support for the legislation among conservative lawmakers. Both the Kentucky House and Senate are led by a Republican majority.
Democratic Representative Nima Kulkarni, who voted for the bill, said that the measure should include restorative justice provisions such as the expungement of weed-related convictions, and said, “People are sitting in jail potentially, or have convictions on their records on this, but we are letting some people benefit from the medical efficacy of cannabis.”
Representative Chad McCoy, a Republican from Bard, also voted in favor of House Bill 136 but said that the legislation does not go far enough.
“I know what you’ve got to do to get a bill across the line, but I hate this bill, I think it’s too restrictive, I think it’s too narrow, I think it’s too much government,” McCoy said.
The only lawmaker to vote against the bill, GOP Representative Kim Moser, said that the measure would result in excessive government bureaucracy. She also said that more research on the medical efficacy of cannabis is needed.
“If the FDA would take a stand on this and actually make it a medicine like they do any other natural product, then we wouldn’t have to change 39 statutes and create this bureaucracy,” Moser said.
Key Senator Endorses Bill
On Tuesday, HB 136 gained the endorsement of Republican Senator Whitney Westerfield, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although he expressed reservations over potential recreational use of cannabis by young people, Westerfield said in a social media post that he would support the bill.
“I also have concerns about the precedent we’re setting by ignoring federal law,” Westerfield wrote in a statement on Twitter. “However, I’ve heard too many stories, in my district and out, from those long suffering and their loved ones left behind, that marijuana brought comfort and relief when nothing else worked.”
Nemes told reporters that receiving Westerfield’s support improves the bill’s chances of getting a vote from the full Senate.
“It will go over to the Senate, it will be assigned to his committee and when you have the chairman in support that’s massive and so that’s why Whitney’s support is a game-changer,” Nemes said.
HB 136 will now be taken up by the full House, where a vote on the measure could occur as soon as next week, according to Nemes. Last month, a trio of Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation that would legalize both medical and adult-use cannabis in Kentucky.