Democratic lawmakers take three-tiered approach to cannabis in Kentucky

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Democratic legislators are taking a three-tiered approach — legislation, executive action, and constitutional amendment — to cannabis in Kentucky in 2023. 

On the first day of the 2023 Legislative Session, Northern Kentucky Rep. Rachel Roberts (D-Newport) filed a near duplicate of the bill she filed in 2022 which seeks to fully legalize recreational cannabis in Kentucky. 

In addition to Roberts’ bill, a Louisville lawmaker also filed a bill to put a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot to permanently decriminalize personal possession and use.

Both of these bills are in addition to the executive action taken by Gov. Andy Beshear in November to legalize small amounts of cannabis for approved users.

“We have patients in the state of Kentucky right now that we’re making criminals out of who are having to access the only medicine to help them or help their children,” Roberts said. 

Roberts refiled the L.E.T.T.’s Grow Cannabis Legislation that seeks to 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.  

“I think what we’ve seen over the last several general assemblies is that it’s best for us to have one big comprehensive bill and then to break that into other bills that may be more digestible at moments in time, that could be the building blocks that get us to that ultimate goal,” Roberts said. 

The ultimate goal of Roberts’ legislation is to control marijuana in Kentucky from “Seed to Sale.” 

“We are still incarcerating people in Kentucky for low-level cannabis offenses, including reincarcerating people for parole violations,” Roberts said. “So this is an economic issue for us. It’s a criminal justice issue for us.”

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In 2022, the legislature failed to pass cannabis legislation. In response, Gov. Beshear formed the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee, which traveled around the state to solicit feedback. 

The Cannabis Committee received positive feedback, so Beshear decided to take executive action in November by allowing Kentuckians with certain health conditions to use and possess small amounts of medical cannabis purchased in another state starting on Jan. 1, 2023.

“Today’s action means that Kentuckians suffering from these chronic and terminal conditions will soon be able to get the help they need without living in fear of being charged with a misdemeanor,” Beshear said in November. 

However, this action doesn’t allow Northern Kentuckians to go across the river in Ohio to obtain medical marijuana because users must be residents. 

While Beshear was eager to take some kind of action, it’s “not a substitute for much-needed legislation,” Beshear said in November. 

With lawmakers taking steps through legislation and executive action, another lawmaker also took steps to push for a constitutional amendment. 

Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D-Louisville) filed a bill on the opening day of the session that will seek to permanently decriminalize possession of personal use amounts of cannabis in the commonwealth via a 2024 constitutional amendment. 

“I do not want to have the legalization conversation without full decriminalization measures,” Kulkarni said of the bill she’s filed the past several sessions and in 2023.

The proposed constitutional amendment would appear on the ballot as the question: “Do you want to decriminalize possession of cannabis up to an ounce and cultivation of five plants for adults 21 and over in the Commonwealth?”

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While Democrats are pushing for the legislation, Republican lawmakers, specifically Senate leadership, have been slow to show any interest in cannabis in Kentucky. 

A medical cannabis bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville) passed the House last spring but didn’t make it to committee in the Senate. 

Over the summer, Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) questioned the governor’s ability to take any action on cannabis via executive order.

“The public should be concerned with a governor who thinks he can change statute by executive order,” Stivers said. “He simply can’t legalize medical marijuana by executive order; you can’t supersede a statute by executive order because it’s a constitutional separation of powers violation.”

On the first day of the session, he said it’s not that he’s opposed to medical marijuana, but it needs to be done in an appropriate way — mainly through additional research. 

“If there are the votes in the caucus and in the Senate to move, it will come to the floor for passage,” Stivers said.

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