Kentucky Governor Exploring State Weed Pardons

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced on Thursday that he has directed his administration to explore issuing pardons for all convictions of simple marijuana possession. Beshear’s announcement follows President Joseph Biden’s move last week to pardon all federal convictions for low-level weed possession and a call for governors to take similar action at the state level.

Beshear noted that despite polls showing that 90% of Kentuckians support legalizing the medical use of cannabis, the state legislature failed to pass a medical marijuana legalization bill earlier this year. He added that lawmakers’ refusal to approve the measure has left “those suffering from Alzheimer’s, ALS, cancer, severe and chronic pain, epilepsy and seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions without access to medical cannabis for relief.”

The governor said that he was not notified in advance that Biden would announce the federal pardons for marijuana possession and ask the states to follow suit. Beshear added that while there are differences between state and federal law, he has asked the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for more information on how many Kentuckians could be eligible for a state pardon for a conviction of low-level cannabis possession.

“Let me be clear, I agree that no one should be in jail simply because of possession of marijuana,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office on Thursday. “I know the vast majority of Kentuckians demand medical cannabis be legalized, and I am committed to keeping Kentuckians updated as we review the information and make plans to move forward.”

Biden Announces Federal Cannabis Pardons

Beshear’s announcement that he would consider pardons for marijuana possession follows Biden’s announcement last week that he would take similar action for all federal felony convictions for simple marijuana possession. Under the plan, about 6,500 federal convictions would be pardoned, while thousands more convictions in the District of Columbia would also be eligible for relief.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” the president said in a statement on October 6. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

At a press briefing, Beshear said that he agreed with the president’s views. He also noted that state and federal law differ, adding that marijuana possession is a misdemeanor in the Bluegrass State, rather than a felony.

“Nobody should ever go to jail for simple possession of marijuana and right now, in Kentucky, they don’t,” said Beshear.

But the governor noted that even misdemeanor convictions carry the collateral consequences mentioned by Biden.

“Having a misdemeanor on your record isn’t a small thing,” Beshear said at his weekly news conference. “We want to know how many people this would apply to. So we’ve asked AOC … to get us that information.”

Kentucky Program Offers Expungement

Beshear added that Kentucky currently has a program to issue expungements for simple marijuana possession convictions.

“You can get this removed from your record completely — meaning if you go through the process, it wouldn’t even show up on a search,” said Beshear. “A pardon is different. A pardon would show up on that search, if not expunged. Then, you would provide proof of your pardon.”

But the governor said that he is still exploring pardons because they might help some people, saying “I’m actively considering what he’s asked, even though it doesn’t have the same result of pardoning felonies that it does under the federal system.”

“I’m just trying to set out the context that things are a little different here in Kentucky, but nonetheless, some people may have a hard time getting a job because of a misdemeanor simple possession conviction,” he added.

Beshear said that his administration would review the president’s request and determine how it could be best implemented in Kentucky.

“We are taking this information into consideration and hope to have new steps to announce here in the near future,” the governor said.

Panel Finds Strong Support For Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Biden’s announcement of federal pardons came only two days after Beshear reported that a panel he formed to advise him on cannabis reform in Kentucky has received overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana. The governor said that the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee found that many Kentuckians who suffer from chronic medical conditions are not being helped by traditional painkillers and fear the possibility of addiction posed by opioids. Kentucky is one of 10 states that permit patients to use low-THC cannabis oil, but more potent marijuana products are still prohibited by law.

“Polling suggests 90% of Kentucky adults support legalizing medical cannabis. Our team traveled the state to talk directly to Kentuckians, and they found our people do indeed overwhelmingly support it,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office on September 30. “I appreciate the work of those who participated, and I am taking this information into consideration as I analyze what steps I can take to legalize medical cannabis for those suffering from chronic, debilitating medical conditions.”

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Kentucky Takes First Step Toward Legal Recreational Cannabis

A Democratic lawmaker in Kentucky on Monday took the first legislative steps toward legalizing cannabis in the Bluegrass State.

State Rep. Nima Kulkarni, who represents Louisville, prefiled a pair of bills that would upend the way cannabis consumers are treated there.

The first bill would “would amend the state’s constitution, permitting Kentuckians 21 and older to possess, use, buy or sell up to one ounce of cannabis without criminal penalty. Kentuckians would also be allowed to have up to five plants for personal use,” local television station LEX 18 reported.

The other would “would have the legislature eliminate criminal penalties for possessing, cultivating, and/or selling small amounts of cannabis,” the station explained, and “would also remove cannabis accessories from the state’s drug-paraphernalia statutes.”

“I am sponsoring these bills for several reasons, any one of which should be enough for them to become law,” Kulkarni said in a statement that was reported on by local TV station WLKY. “First, current cannabis statutes have needlessly and tragically ruined many lives, especially people of color who have suffered because of unequal enforcement. Second, thousands of citizens, from cancer patients to veterans suffering from PTSD, should have the right to use something that gives them the mental and physical relief they deserve without relying on stronger, potentially addictive medicine. Third, cannabis de-criminalization would give the state a much-needed source of reliable revenue without raising current taxes a single cent. And, finally, polls have repeatedly shown a majority of Kentuckians backs de-criminalization and allowing cannabis to be used responsibly by adults.”

LEX 18 reported that Kulkarni’s proposed constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis “would need to be approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate during the upcoming 2022 legislative session, before going in front of voters next November.”

The state’s legislative session is scheduled to begin in January.

A poll last year found that 59 percent of Kentuckians are in favor of legalizing cannabis—a whopping 20-point spike in merely seven years.           

But that doesn’t mean that Kulkarni’s two bills are a sure-thing, particularly given the general assembly’s recent history.

The state’s House of Representatives passed a bill in February 2020 legalizing medical cannabis treatment, but the legislation fizzled out after the COVID-19 pandemic brought business to a standstill.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, urged lawmakers late last year to renew their efforts to get the bill over the line. As a gubernatorial candidate in 2019, Beshear had spoken out against harsh penalties, including prison time, for cannabis consumers.

Kulkarni’s moves on Monday harken back to former Democratic Kentucky Rep. Cluster Howard, who in 2019 also prefiled a bill that would have legalized marijuana use for adults aged 21 and older and decriminalized marijuana possession of less than an ounce. Howard’s bill also would have created a regulated market for the sale of cannabis.

“Other states have shown that legalizing cannabis for adult use is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” Howard said at the time. “It’s a major revenue generator. It frees up critical jail and prison space. It helps counteract the deadly opioid epidemic. And it gives farmers a major new cash crop. The longer we wait, the more we miss out on these benefits.”

There were more than 20,000 arrests for possession and sale of cannabis in Kentucky between 2014 and 2016.

The ACLU said last year that Black Kentuckians “are 9.4 times more likely than white Kentuckians to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite both groups having similar national marijuana use rates,” a rate that “is second only to Montana, where Black people are 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than white people.”

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