NKY Rep. Rachel Roberts: If Kentucky doesn’t legalize cannabis, ‘we are leaving money on the table’

Rep. Rachel Roberts, flanked by Louisville Democratic Senators David Yates and Morgan McGarvey, announces plans for cannabis legislation.

Representative Rachel Roberts (D-Newport) filed comprehensive marijuana legislation on Thursday. Flanked by Democratic Louisville Senators Morgan McGarvey and David Yates, Roberts announced the bill ahead of the House session. 

“Today, we are here to announce our L.E.T.T.’s Grow Cannabis Legislation,” Roberts said. The acronym stands for legalize sales, expunge low-level possession crimes, treat those who deserve to benefit from medicinal properties, and tax sales from those who want to buy it. 

“Our legislation is the comprehensive plan that Kentuckians deserve, and it builds on what has worked in other states while avoiding their mistakes,” Roberts said. “This would be a boon for our economy and our farmers alike.”

Citing polls that show Kentuckians support legal marijuana, the legislators noted that marijuana wouldn’t be a panacea for all that ails the state. But it will bring in additional tax revenue and expunge crimes for those who carry a small amount of marijuana. This will also ease pressure on the jails and courts systems that routinely handle these cases. 

“Kentucky stands to gain up to $100 million a year if our sales mirror those of our neighbors in Michigan and Illinois,” Roberts said. “But, not if we keep letting neighboring states beat us to the punch.” 

Currently, 37 states have some form of legalized cannabis, making Kentucky an outlier when it comes to marijuana. The Commonwealth does allow Delta 8 products, a hemp-derived product similar to Delta 9 THC and has psychoactive properties, which was part of the sweeping 2018 Farm Bill that regulates hemp. 

While Republican leadership in both the Senate and House have mentioned they are open to marijuana legislation, they also have signaled that a bill is unlikely to pass this session. Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) has spoken about his apprehensions for a medical marijuana bill in past sessions. But, along with Stivers, House Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect) has signaled that he might be open to it. 

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“I think realistic hope is part of it, but the truth is in the hallways, the conversations and the one-on-ones, now if we give people who have finally been educated enough to understand that you’re not voting whether you’re going to have marijuana in Kentucky, you’re voting whether or not we’re going to take on the responsibility to properly regulate it,” Yates said. 

The trio of Democratic legislators is hoping to have a Republican co-sponsor for the bill, and now that’s it’s officially filed, that might be possible. Sen. McGarvey noted that he was annoyed when he saw that Mississippi passed cannabis legislation and Kentucky still hasn’t. 

“We are the epicenter of the opioid crisis in this country,” McGarvey said. “We continue to prescribe opiates to people in pain, [such as] morphine, but we are not able to prescribe marijuana who get comfort when they have cancer.”

While cannabis has medicinal benefits, lawmakers argued it also provides financial relief for the state. Roberts said that by not legalizing cannabis, “we are leaving money on the table.” 

“Make no mistake, Kentuckians are growing cannabis, they are selling cannabis, and they are consuming cannabis,” Roberts said. “We just aren’t regulating it for their safety or benefiting from the tax revenue it should be generating.”

If enacted, the bill would create a cannabis control board that mirrors the work of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. They would focus on cannabis from “seed to sale.” In addition to the board would be four advisory committees that focus on medicinal and adult-use; cultivation; and social and economic equity. 

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A Social Impact Council would also be created to use some of the state’s proceeds to award scholarships and grants to groups that have been historically impacted by substance abuse.

As in past sessions, the legislation will play out over the next couple of months. 

“It’s not just the legislators who are talking differently about it because of their experience,” McGarvey said, “it’s the people of Kentucky, the voters, who are talking differently about legalizing marijuana.”