The Kentucky Senate on Thursday passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana after years of work by lawmakers and activists. The Senate approved the measure, Senate Bill 47, by a bipartisan vote of 26-11. The legislation will now head to the state House of Representatives, where similar bills to legalize medical marijuana were passed twice in recent years.
Republican Senator Stephen West, a lead sponsor of the bill who has worked to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky for five years, said that the legislation will give patients with serious medical conditions new options in treatment.
“It’s time for Kentucky to join the other 37 states that allow medical marijuana as an option for their citizens,” West said, adding that those who use cannabis medicinally should be able to do so “without being considered a criminal.”
If passed, Senate Bill 47 would permit patients aged 18 and up with certain qualifying medical conditions including cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder to obtain a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana. The new Kentucky Center for Cannabis at the University of Kentucky, which opened in September of last year, can add additional qualifying conditions if it determines through data and research that patients with the condition are “likely to receive medical, therapeutic, or palliative benefits from the use of medicinal cannabis.”
The bill does not allow patients to smoke cannabis, although it does allow for the sale of raw cannabis flower for vaporization. Other cannabis formulations including capsules, tinctures and topical products are also authorized by the bill.
Bill Contains Medical Cannabis Regulation Provisions
SB 47 tasks the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services with drafting and implementing regulations to enact the legislation and regulate the production and sale of medical marijuana in the state. The legislation does not include provisions allowing patients to cultivate medical marijuana at home.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer was one of eight senators on the Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee who voted in favor of advancing Senate Bill 47 on March 14. Previously a staunch opponent of legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky, Thayer recently suggested that his views on the issue are evolving after hearing testimonials from constituents. He told his colleagues on the committee that he voted “for the sake of those who suffer.”
“It’s not very often I change my mind,” Thayer said after the committee voted to advance the bill. “I did on industrial hemp and I did today on medical marijuana. I’m just trying to be a little more empathetic in my old age.”
Senate Bill 47 now heads to the Kentucky House of Representatives, where lawmakers have approved previous measures to legalize medical marijuana twice since 2020. If passed by the full legislature, the bill will be sent to Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who has repeatedly called on the state legislature to pass medical marijuana legislation.
In June 2022, the governor announced that he was establishing a medical cannabis advisory committee to explore creating a path to legalization. In November, Beshear issued an executive order that decriminalized medical marijuana for patients with specified qualifying conditions. And in January, he repeated his call for state lawmakers to send him a medical marijuana legalization bill in 2023.
Eric Crawford, an activist who has worked to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky for a decade, shared his surprise after Thursday’s vote by the Senate.
“I’m shocked,” said Crawford. “Now it’s time for the House.”
Under the bill, Kentucky’s medical cannabis program would launch by January 2025. Crawford, who was paralyzed in a vehicle accident 30 years ago, says that cannabis is the only medicine that effectively treats the pain and muscle spasms he endures as a result of the catastrophic injury. Although he has nearly two years before Senate Bill 47 goes into effect, Crawford said that he understands the delay.
“I figured it was gonna take that long to set up the system that we didn’t have,” Crawford said. “Yeah, it’s a long hard wait, but I’m doing what I gotta do.”
On March 14, Senate Bill 47 was reviewed in the Senate Licensing & Occupations Committee voted 8-3, which will now move forward to the Senate floor.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Stephen West, spoke at the meeting. “I didn’t intend to ever get into medical marijuana or take a look at the issue,” West explained. He added that two advocates from Mason County, Eric and Michelle Crawford, inspired him to look closer into medical cannabis and its potential benefits.
West reviewed the bill in its current version, which would allow medical cannabis for patients with “any type of cancer regardless of stage, chronic, severe, intractable, or debilitating pain, epilepsy or any other intractable seizure disorder, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms or spasticity, chronic nausea or cyclical vomiting, post-traumatic stress disorder, and then we added one recently, any other medical condition or disease for which the Kentucky Center for Cannabis finds appropriate.”
Although smoking cannabis would be prohibited, raw cannabis would be permitted for vaping purposes. Cultivating cannabis for personal use would not be permitted either. The program would be managed by The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and regulations would be finalized by Jan. 1, 2025.
“I know it’s been a long road to this committee and I want to commend you for your vigilance and on this bill,” committee chair John Schnickel said in reply. “I have been working with you and people who have carried this bill before you for years. And you are an example to us all of in class and the way to handle yourself on a controversial issue which people feel passionately about in both directions.”
The committee also heard from longtime advocate Eric Crawford, who became a quadriplegic in the 1990s when he was involved in an automotive accident that broke his neck in three places. Crawford attested to the power and necessity of cannabis to improve his quality of life. “Here I am at the Kentucky state capitol, wearing a tie, trying to get medical cannabis legal for sick people. Medical cannabis relaxes my continuous, uncontrollable, violent muscle spasms. Medical cannabis relieves my constant, never-ending pain. Cannabis helps me. I’ve been crippled for almost 30 years, I know what is best for me. I don’t want to be high, I just want to feel better,” Crawford told the committee.
In March 2022, the Kentucky House passed House Bill 136, which would have legalized medical cannabis. However, it stalled in the Senate, and so advocates decided to start in the Senate for this session. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer has been opposed to medical cannabis for some time, and remains an obstacle for the movement. In January, he expressed that medical cannabis is a gateway to recreational legalization. “I’ve been hearing about it for years. I know my constituents are for it, but this is a republic, and they elect us to go to Frankfort and make decisions on their behalf,” Thayer said. “If they don’t like it, they can take it out on me in the next election.” Recently, NORML called out Thayer, asking him to support the will of the people and “do the job you were elected to do.
Back in November 2022, Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order that allowed patient access to medical cannabis and delta-8. His order went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, but only through legislation can full medical cannabis legalization become reality. “The executive order isn’t going to make it convenient for anyone on the medical marijuana front. What it will ensure is that they’re not a criminal,” Beshear said in January. “And that’s the limitations that I have in executive power and the limitations that other states have set if we don’t have our own full program. And it’s why it’s so important that the legislature go ahead and pass medical marijuana.”
The Kentucky House of Representatives voted on Thursday to approve a bill to regulate the production and sale of the hemp-derived cannabinoid delta-8 THC in the state. The measure, House Bill 544, was approved unanimously by a vote of 97-0 and now heads to the state Senate for consideration.
While discussing the legislation on the House floor on Thursday, lawmakers said that they have heard appeals from school and law enforcement officials to restrict sales of delta-8 THC, a psychoactive compound that can be synthesized from legal hemp CBD. Republican House Speaker Pro Tempore David Mead told his colleagues that products containing delta-8 THC pose a safety risk to young people.
“We have this product getting into the hands of children,” Meade said during Thursday’s debate on the legislation. “We have some that have overdosed on this product.”
If passed by the state Senate and signed into law, House Bill 544 would task the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services with drafting administrative regulations for the production and sale of delta-8 products in the state. Regulatory guidelines included in the legislation mandate that the regulations ban the sale of delta-8 to anyone younger than 21 years old. The guidelines also called for delta-8 products to be kept behind retail sales counters and for packaging to clearly state the ingredients contained in the products.
Republican Representative Rebecca Raymer, the lead sponsor of House Bill 544, said that the proliferation of unregulated delta-8 THC threatens farmers and business owners in Kentucky’s growing hemp industry.
“The Kentucky hemp program is a staple for our agricultural community, but the selling and usage of unregulated THC is a danger to every Kentuckian who may use it,” Raymer said in a statement. “These products have no standards for production. If someone were to purchase Delta-8, they have no way of determining if it is safe. This measure will both protect our consumers and enhance the industry.”
KentuckyBill Supported By Hemp Business Owners
House Bill 544 has the support of many business owners and hemp industry representatives, both in Kentucky and nationwide. Jonathan Miller, general counsel to the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, called the bill “strong legislation” to regulate delta-8 THC and to keep the cannabinoid away from young people.
“Unregulated intoxicating products pose a health crisis for Kentucky and the nation, but measures to criminalize these products are not prudent,” Miller said in a statement from the hemp industry trade group. “HB 544 cuts the perfect balance by ensuring strict regulations that will keep children from accessing these adult products.”
John Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of hemp processor Commonwealth Extracts in Louisville, told lawmakers in the House that Kentucky’s legitimate hemp operators back the legislation.
“We are all in support of regulations. It gets rid of the bad actors who make it hard to compete,” Taylor said. “It costs a lot of money to do the right thing, and when we have people making things in the bathrooms and basements and barns, it really makes it hard for us to compete on a legitimate level.”
Katie Moyer, board president of the Kentucky Hemp Association, said that Kentucky delta-8 consumers face a “Wild West situation” in the state, with products sold at gas stations, health food stores, and other retail outlets containing ingredients “coming from who knows where.”
In May 2023, a federal appeals court ruled that delta-8 THC is legal under federal law, prompting many states to propose legislation to regulate the cannabinoid that is commonly available at convenience stores, smoke shops, and gas stations, particularly in states that have not legalized marijuana. Last year, the Kentucky state Senate passed a bill banning the production of intoxicating hemp-derived products including delta-8 THC by a vote of 23-13, but the House of Representatives declined to approve the measure.
As the debate over delta-8 THC ramped up early last year, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable said in a statement that the marketing of intoxicating hemp products threatens the development of a robust hemp industry.
“These marketing campaigns undermine our advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill to secure important industry objectives such as regulating CBD and increasing THC levels in the field to provide flexibility to farmers,” Miller said in February. “But further, they have also spurred a number of state legislative and regulatory actions that while well intended, have been drafted so broadly as to threaten the provision of safe and healthy nonintoxicating products, like hemp-derived CBD. We call on FDA and state regulators to enforce existing laws to target their efforts on cracking down on intoxicating products marketed as hemp that threaten public health and safety.”
The effort to reform the nation’s cannabis laws made new strides in 2022 with the passage of recreational marijuana legalization ballot measures in Maryland and Missouri in the November midterm elections. Success was not universal, however, as similar propositions on the ballot in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota failed to gain the approval of voters.
Looking at 2023, new milestones have already been achieved this year, with Connecticut launching regulated retail sales of adult-use cannabis on January 10, a move that was preceded by the expungement of nearly 43,000 marijuana-related convictions in the state at the dawn of the new year. And as we head further into 2023, several states across the country are likely to make new ground in the struggle to end cannabis prohibition.
A New Focus
Brian Vicente, a founding partner at the cannabis and psychedelics law firm, Vicente Sederberg LLP, says that despite spending millions of dollars on lobbying federal lawmakers in 2022, the efforts of cannabis activists were unable to result in the passage of any meaningful marijuana policy reform at the next level. With the change in the political climate in Washington, D.C., efforts this year will take a new focus.
“With Republicans taking over the House, any federal reform in the two years seems exceedingly unlikely. Fortunately, movement leaders have begun coalescing around a strategy to cut back on federal lobbying and instead push resources toward state-level reform,” Vicente said in an email. “These efforts are aiming to flip as many as 10 states to adult-use in just three years, which would not only open new markets for consumers, but also create intense pressure on Congress to pass legislation aligning federal law with the thirty-odd states where cannabis is legal for adults.”
As the new year begins, more than a half-dozen states are likely to consider legislation to reform their marijuana laws, with most activity centering in the South and Midwest regions. Outside those broad areas, Hawaii could be poised to make progress on the issue with a new governor at the helm, Democrat Josh Green, who included support for expanding the state’s current legalization of medical marijuana to include adult-use cannabis as part of his campaign for office last year. On January 11, Democratic state Rep. Jeanné Kapela announced her plans to introduce a recreational marijuana legalization bill, saying, “this year, we stand on the precipice of history.”
“We now have a roadmap for legalizing recreational cannabis in our islands,” Kapela said in a statement quoted by Marijuana Moment. “Legalizing cannabis is not just a matter of money, it is a matter of moralities.”
Snowden Stieber, a regulatory analyst with cannabis compliance technology firm Simplifya, notes that the bill has some hurdles to clear before it can get to Green’s desk, however.
“The Hawaii Senate President, Ron Kouchi, has already come out with statements expressing skepticism on any fast movement for cannabis legalization, and many elected officials are still waiting on the upcoming report from the Dual Use of Cannabis Task Force to guide their votes in the new year,” he said in an email. “While it is of course possible that the task force recommends full legalization, prior experience in other states would suggest that legislators will take their time with any report’s findings and that a sudden move toward legalization is unlikely.”
Vicente believes three states in the South—Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina—could pass legislation to legalize medical marijuana this year. With the nearby states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida already demonstrating that a regulated marijuana industry can provide jobs and tax revenue, other states in the region are likely not far behind.
South Carolina, where Rep. Nancy Mace has become one of the few Republicans in Congress advocating for cannabis policy reform at the national level, is one of the few remaining states that still hasn’t legalized marijuana in any form. But reform is popular with the state’s residents, with a Winthrop University poll conducted before last year’s midterm elections showing that more than 75% of voters support the legalization of medical cannabis. This year, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pre-filed separate medical marijuana legalization bills for the 2023 legislative session. But Simplifya regulatory analyst Justin Bedford isn’t optimistic about the fate of the legislation.
“Though these may seem like promising developments, history suggests that South Carolina still has a long way to go before any form of commercial legalization occurs,” he wrote in an email. “All 14 cannabis-related bills that were deliberated during the 2022 legislative session failed to pass, with most dying in the early stages of development. Nothing has changed in the state’s sociopolitical environment that would suggest anything will be different this year.”
In North Carolina, the state Senate passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in June 2022, but the House of Representatives declined to take up the legislation. Brian Fitzpatrick, chairman and CEO of cannabis software developer Qredible Inc, notes that public support for medical marijuana legalization is strong, and if a bill makes it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, he’s likely to sign it into law.
“A poll carried out in January 2021 by Elon University found that 73% of North Carolinians supported medical cannabis,” Fitzpatrick said in an email. “A subsequent poll in May 2022 showed that support had increased to 82% across bipartisan lines. I believe that the governor is aware of this and will fully support the legalization of a medical cannabis bill in 2023.”
In Kentucky, where an executive order from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear decriminalizing medical marijuana went into effect on New Year’s Day, a bill to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis was unveiled by lawmakers on January 7. The measure, Senate Bill 51, would legalize and regulate the “possession, cultivation, production, processing, packaging, transportation, testing, marketing, sale and use of medical cannabis and adult-use cannabis,” according to a report from the online resource Business Insurance. With Kentucky being one of the nation’s largest hemp producers, industry insiders believe the legislation has a good chance of success this year.
The Midwest and Surrounding States
Several states in the Midwest could make advancements in cannabis policy reform in 2023. In Ohio, voters could get the chance to vote on a cannabis legalization measure championed by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which was kept off the ballot for the November midterm election after legal challenges. Last week, Secretary of State Frank LaRose reintroduced the proposal, which would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older and levy a 10% tax on commercial cannabis products. If the state legislature doesn’t approve the measure within four months, the coalition can collect signatures to put the proposal before the votes in the fall. Trent Woloveck, chief commercial director of cannabis commerce platform Jushi, believes legalization efforts have an even chance of success in Ohio this year.
“It is very unlikely that the legislature acts on the initiated stature in the next four months, but reasonably likely that the Coalition will be able to gather the additional required signatures for the effort to make the ballot,” he says. “While polling would suggest a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis would pass, the Senate president and other legislators disagree. And, even if voters approved an initiated statute, the legislature would have unrestricted authority to repeal or materially revise legalization.”
Like Hawaii, Pennsylvania has a new governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who has expressed support for legalizing recreational marijuana. The issue has been stymied in years past by Republican lawmakers, but a new Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives may help the chances at success.
“While we’ve heard some interest from both sides of the aisle in previous years, conversations about legalization seem to be happening among a much larger group of legislators with increased frequency and specificity,” Woloveck says. “It also sounds like many legislators, including several previously unwilling to engage in any cannabis-related discussions, now acknowledge something has to be done about the illicit market and to stop revenue from flowing to neighboring states where people can buy legal, regulated cannabis for non-medical purposes.”
After legalizing low-potency THC edibles last year, cannabis policy experts say Minnesota could be the most likely state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2023. The state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) is now in charge of both the legislative and executive branches of government, and party leaders including Gov. Tim Walz have said that cannabis legalization will be a priority for 2023. Last Wednesday, a bill sponsored by DFL lawmakers Rep. Zack Stephenson and Sen. Lindsey Port received the approval of a legislative committee, with more hearings on the measure to come.
In Oklahoma, where 10% of adults hold cards to participate in the state’s liberal medical marijuana program, voters will decide on a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis in March. If passed, State Question 820 would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older. The measure also contains provisions to expunge past convictions for marijuana-related offenses. Proponents of the measure had hoped it would appear before voters during the November midterm elections, but a delay in certifying petition signatures and legal challenges from opponents prevented its inclusion on the ballot.
Lawmakers in other states including Georgia and Delaware could also take up measures to legalize marijuana this year, although the prospects for success in 2023 seem unlikely given the political climate in those states. But progress in cannabis policy will probably continue if the trend seen over the last decade goes on.
“Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis, we’ve seen an average of two states per year pass adult-use laws,” Vicente notes. “I predict that 2023 will continue this trend with both Oklahoma and Minnesota looking very likely to legalize.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently held a press briefing detailing many of his successful actions from the past year. Among these accomplishments for his administration, Beshear discussed his move to help patients who want to use medical cannabis. “After the General Assembly failed to take action once again, I issued an executive order to allow certain Kentuckians, like veterans suffering from PTSD and those suffering from chronic and terminal conditions like cancer, to access medical cannabis. That order takes effect soon, Jan. 1, 2023,” he said.
After concluding the briefing, Beshear took questions from the press. Al Cross, a professor at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media who also writes for the Northern Kentucky Tribune, asked about the lack of convenience for those seeking to obtain medical cannabis.
“The executive order isn’t going to make it convenient for anyone on the medical marijuana front. What it will ensure is that they’re not a criminal,” Beshear said. “And that’s the limitations that I have in executive power and the limitations that other states have set if we don’t have our own full program. And it’s why it’s so important that the legislature go ahead and pass medical marijuana.”
Beshear shared that his administration is working on putting together regulations for Delta-8 products, which was recently ruled legal by a Northern Kentucky circuit judge. He also explained that the legislature needs to do its part to assist patients throughout the state by passing an official medical cannabis program.
“I want our people to be able to get it close to home, I don’t want them to have to drive to Illinois. That takes an act of the legislature,” Beshear said. “I am the first to admit the executive order is imperfect because the legislature should have done this a long time ago, but it’s also fluent. And just by reissuing an additional executive order, we can shore up anything that we have the ability to, as we have those discussions with other states.
Beshear mentioned that soon there will be a “palm card” issued to law enforcement next week to educate them about what the executive order accomplishes. “Also the palm card for law enforcement will be out there by Jan. 4. First, it is very simple,” Beshear briefly explained. “But just talking to the Mothers for Medical Marijuana the other day, [the] executive order is a step they find exciting and provides some comfort that they won’t be prosecuted, but it’s not the answer. But I do hope it provides pressure.”
According to WHAS11, Beshear described the palm card as a checklist for law enforcement to work through, including showing a receipt that states where a product was purchased.
Recently, advocates from Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis and Kentucky NORML spent time in the Kentucky capitol building hanging more than 350 images of patients with chronic conditions who benefitted from access to medical cannabis. Beshear visited the exhibit on Dec. 28 to meet with those advocates. “Many Kentuckians with chronic pain are suffering and searching for relief. Today I visited with Moms for Cannabis, advocates who are looking for health solutions that don’t sacrifice quality of life—something medical cannabis can deliver,” Beshear wrote on Twitter.
Julie Cantwell from Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis is hoping that the legislature takes action in 2023. “Year after year, we’re overlooked, and this year we’re hoping that the legislature is going to pass a medical cannabis bill,” Cantwell told WYMT. “So, a lot of these people you see on the wall can’t make it to Frankfort, so we’re bringing the people to Frankfort.”
Democratic Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky on Tuesday signed an executive order authorizing the use of medical marijuana for some patients. Under the order, Kentuckians with certain specified serious medical conditions will be able to use medical cannabis beginning next year.
“Kentuckians suffering from chronic and terminal conditions are going to be able to get the treatment they need without living in fear of a misdemeanor,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office. “With 37 states already legalizing medical cannabis and 90% of Kentucky adults supporting it, I am doing what I can to provide access and relief to those who meet certain conditions and need it to better enjoy their life, without pain.”
Beshear’s executive order authorizes patients with at least one of 21 medical conditions including cancer, terminal illness, muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder to use medical marijuana. To comply with the executive order, medical cannabis must be purchased in a state that has legalized and regulates marijuana and the patient must retain the receipt. Possession of medical marijuana is limited to eight ounces, which is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony for marijuana possession in Kentucky. Patients are also required to have certification from a licensed medical provider that shows the patient has been diagnosed with at least one of the specified medical conditions.
The governor added that guidelines were being developed for law enforcement to help officers quickly determine who is eligible to use and possess medical marijuana. Beshear also emphasized that his executive order is not a substitute for “much-needed legislation to fully legalize medical cannabis.” The governor plans to work with lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session to advocate for comprehensive medical marijuana legalization, “which would further provide relief for those suffering, fuel job growth and support Kentucky’s farmers.”
Panel Finds Strong Support For Legalizing Marijuana
The executive order follows the failure of the state legislature to pass legislation earlier this year and Beshear’s creation of the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee in June. The panel traveled throughout the state, hosting town hall meetings to listen to Kentuckians’ views on the legalization of medical marijuana. In addition to the town hall meetings, the state’s medical cannabis website allowed Kentuckians to submit their opinions online. The website received 3,539 comments, 98.64% of which expressed support for legalizing medical cannabis in the state. On September 30, Beshear released a summary of the committee’s work that showed a majority of Kentuckians agree that it is past time for the state to take action on legalizing medical cannabis.
“Our committee met good people all across the commonwealth who are suffering from terrible chronic conditions that are relieved by medical cannabis,” said Kerry Harvey, co-chair of the committee and secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. “This is real-world experience, not conjecture. The Governor’s action will improve the quality of life for these Kentuckians, but more should be done in the coming legislative session.”
“It took bravery to overcome anxiety and often physical pain to stand up at a town hall meeting, but people did it to make sure their story was heard. Not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of family members, friends and others facing a similar condition,” added Ray Perry, co-chair of the committee and secretary of the Public Protection Cabinet. “Each story made it clear that people are finding real relief from chronic conditions with medical cannabis.”
Second Executive Order Regulates Delta-8 THC in Kentucky
Beshear also signed a second executive order on Tuesday that regulates delta-8 THC, a psychoactive cannabinoid that can be manufactured from legal hemp. The governor noted that delta-8 is not a controlled substance in Kentucky or at the federal level, and a court has ruled that the substance is legal in Kentucky.
“Right now, there are no checks on how it is packaged and sold. We must establish a regulatory structure to ensure that Delta 8 is sold and purchased safely in the commonwealth,” Beshear said. “The structure can and will also serve as a template for when the General Assembly fully legalizes medical cannabis. That means we can learn in real-time, train our people and be ready to go.”
The governor’s office noted that a total of 37 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have approved legislation to allow cannabis for medical use by qualified individuals. Additionally, Kentucky’s neighboring states of Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and West Virginia have legalized medical cannabis.
“This is not a red or blue issue,” Beshear said. “It is about our people and helping those who are in pain and suffering.”
Beshear’s executive order to legalize marijuana is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2023.
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.”
The Bluegrass State’s flagship university is getting some green. In an announcement on Wednesday, the University of Kentucky heralded the opening of “a new center that will advance research on the medical use of cannabis.”
The “UK Cannabis Center,” as it is known, “will conduct research on the health effects of cannabis, including its risks and benefits when used to treat certain medical conditions.”
The center is the result of a bill passed by Kentucky lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear earlier this year.
“The legislature is interested in having us explore the conditions for which medical cannabis might be useful, as well as the most effective dosing and route of administration for each condition,” said Dr. Shanna Babalonis, who will serve as director of the UK Cannabis Center.
The announcement on Wednesday said that Babalonis is “an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and a cannabis researcher at CDAR, is increasingly recognized as a leader in the cannabis field and an expert on the topic of medical cannabinoids,” boasting “three active National Institutes of Health grants, totaling nearly $3.5 million, aimed at examining cannabis-opioid interactions, cannabis effects in those with opioid use disorder and the effects of cannabis on simulated driving performance.”
“The new center will allow us to expand our clinical research, particularly focusing on medical conditions that may be helped by medical cannabis,” Babalonis said in the announcement.
The bill that established the UK Cannabis Center was passed in the closing days of the Kentucky legislative session in April. Beshear, a Democrat, used a line-item veto in his signing of the legislation, striking out certain parts of the bill that he said would “limit the purpose of the center and dictate who the president of the University of Kentucky should consider appointing to the advisory board after giving the president of the university sole appointing power.”
Beshear said earlier this year that he was entertaining the idea of using executive action to legalize medical cannabis in the state.
“We’re going to explore that,” Beshear said in April. “It’s something that we will look at. Its time has certainly come.”
“The public should be concerned with a governor who thinks he can change statute by executive order,” Stivers said in a statement in April. “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.”
The bill that established the UK Cannabis Center was viewed as a compromise by Republicans in the state Senate who were not ready to fully legalize medical cannabis treatment. A bill legalizing medical cannabis passed out of the Kentucky state House of Representatives in March, but the measure was never brought to a vote in the state Senate.
In the announcement on Wednesday, the University of Kentucky said that the bill “also requires UK to apply to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for a license to grow and cultivate cannabis,” and that if approved, “the center will be able to conduct agricultural research pertaining to optimal growing conditions.”
According to the announcement, “UK President Eli Capilouto recently appointed a multidisciplinary team of UK faculty members that will oversee the research center’s work and finances,” and the “12-member board includes an executive or steering committee that will work with Babalonis to establish the center’s research goals and agenda and make key financial decisions, and an advisory board to help guide and provide feedback on the center’s progress and overall direction.”
Some would argue that it is counterintuitive, frivolous, and perhaps even a little cattywampus for the editor of the leading cannabis magazine in the world to send a tattooed, bald writer to a music festival in Louisville, Kentucky called Bourbon & Beyond to assess the pulse of the cannabis culture in that neck of the woods. They might even throw stones at such a bold assignment that, in their minds, only serves to glorify the alcohol industry while their precious plant, as illegal as all get out in the Bluegrass State, gets the dishonor of being the red-headed, bastard stepchild that nobody wants to play with. At least not while their real friends are around.
There may even be those cannabis conservatives who’ll argue that mingling with any extension of the subjugated south, a place seemingly chock full of flag-praising good ole boys with red, white, and blue constitutions, pounding down brown liquor in pursuit of the maniacal mindset that’s been, on occasion, known to produce wife-beaters and social louses shouldn’t be given the time of day. But they’d be dead wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, Kentucky, an area of cockeyed politics, where the absurdity that dropped out of Nixon’s Republican asshole nearly five decades ago is being perpetuated by the ire of slack-jawed McConnellism, is precisely the place to be.
My mission, if I, of course, chose to accept it (and I did without thinking twice), was to roam this transient Valhalla of bourbon distilleries and music in search for some of that Kentucky Bluegrass. You know, marijuana, weed, smoke, pot. Much to my surprise, however, upon arriving on Thursday evening, I didn’t have to go looking very far. Amidst the mélange of odors, including pizza, BBQ, noodles, and cheap cologne, pot smoke was also prevalent throughout the festival. This was interesting seeing as organizers maintained strict bans against this sort of thing. Any illegal drug use was strictly prohibited. They went as far as to explicitly point out in their entry policies that even cannabis and cannabis products were a big, bad no-no. There was a high security and police presence posted at every gate to enforce this measure, too. Bags were being searched, metal detectors were activated, K9 units could be seen sniffing around. No sir, the supposed riffraff with the reefer wasn’t getting beyond the gates with any of that green stuff, no matter what. If they tried, they’d have Louisville’s finest to contend with. Yet, from where I was standing, just minutes before Alanis Morrisette took the stage, their anti-stoner procedures had failed, and failed miserably.
As the sun slumped into the horizon, plumes of pot smoke wafted across the Highland Festival Grounds like a bomb went off. “Someone’s smoking marijuana,” one man shouted in the distance.
Indeed, they were.
Now, I wasn’t surprised about the festivalgoers’ inability to behave like good boys and girls. You just can’t go dropping over a hundred thousand people into a field under the heat of a Kentucky sky for four days straight, feeding them an unlimited supply of hard liquor and expect civil society to parade around and smile pretty. Louisville is, after all, Bourbon City. If this event was to shake out to be anything similar to what I’ve witnessed at the Kentucky Derby in previous years, the festival was destined to become a menagerie of foul beasts, all with a propensity for violence once the lines to the Porta-Potties got too long. If the inability to take a whizz once nature called didn’t get them riled up enough to unleash their savage wrath, they would surely rise up with wild-eyed ferocity once they checked their bank accounts and saw that those $18 beers were going to have them homeless by the end of the month. I, for one, was ready for anything. But did anyone else know what they were getting themselves into? Doubtfully. By Saturday, at least in my mind, attendees would not only need to come fully prepared to endure desert-like conditions but also cloaked in plastic or maybe even battle armor to protect them from the whiskey-drenched carnage that would surely loom once the darkness set in and those bourbon bellies erupted.
Pearl Jam was set to headline Saturday’s festivities. The band, whose hits include “Jeremy,” and “Daughter,” hadn’t played anywhere in the Midwest in roughly ten years, and maybe for good reason. Their rare presence meant that every class of character from soccer moms to Yoo-hoo girls to a variety of man-fans of varying levels of testosterone would be there too, all summoning their inner, flannel-sporting youth, fully prepared for a time quake of nostalgia. The celebration would be one where twinges of teenage rebellion, memories of first love, and perhaps even simpler times could possibly invoke a slew of deep-seated emotions and set even the most stable fan who’s had one too many shots on course for a nasty reaction. Weirdos, oddities, upstanding citizens, and other random creatures of the night had come to rage, and maybe even cry.
In this possible scenario, there’s only one thing to do: Protect yourself at all times. Although there was undoubtedly a heavy stoner presence throughout the festival, they were still seemingly outnumbered by the whiskey bent and hellbound pushing the experience to the point of toilet-hugging regret. A man named Jarred, who said he came for the bands, not the bourbon, told me that he felt like any fallout would be “cool” if the event would just let people toke up.
“A lot of these people were too scared to try bringing it in,” he said about the ticketholders’ response to festival policy against pot consumption. “I knew they wouldn’t be looking that close. They never do.”
Concerts and weed have always gone hand in hand. Long before cannabis was ever a consideration in terms of legal commerce anywhere in the United States, marijuana aficionados, hippies, metal heads, and perhaps even a Peter, Paul & Mary fan or two loaded up in hatchbacks, VWs, and jacked up Monte Carlos with racing stripes and mag wheels in a quest to see a performance from their favorite bands.
The first time I smelled marijuana, in fact, was in a 1970s model Chevy van with a gray, howling wolf airbrushed on the side. It was 1987 and I was en route to see Mötley Crüe with a buddy, his mom, and one of her friends. Not only did his mom offer me a hit in the parking lot, but so did five other, fully grown men during the show. No, I didn’t accept. I was only twelve and had fully bought into the Just Say No propaganda they’d been feeding us at school. I was scared to death that weed would either kill me or turn me into some deformed monstrosity that resembled Jason Voorhees. I would soon learn, however, that if you went to a rock show, you’d better be prepared to catch a whiff of weed. You might even get the opportunity to smoke some. It didn’t matter if you hadn’t yet grown hair on your balls. For my generation, pot often came before puberty.
It was seemingly easier to smuggle weed into a venue back in the day. All a clever stoner had to do was put a few joints in his shoe and it would go unnoticed. The one security guard trying to get thousands of rabid fans through the turnstile at $5.50 an hour didn’t care enough to enforce drug policy. As long as someone wasn’t carrying a shank, firearm, or nunchucks (hey, I knew a guy who tried that), they didn’t give a damn.
However, Kentucky is a strange place politically, even in 2022. There have been many attempts over the years to reform the drug laws across the state, especially those geared toward legalizing marijuana. But lawmakers have continued to shut down the concept of a taxed and regulated market. They won’t even budge in terms of allowing it to be used for therapeutic purposes. State law calls for petty pot offenders to be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable with as many as 45 days in jail and a $250 fine. But the judicial system is seemingly tired of messing with low level offenses. There’s not a lot of judges these days adhering to the state’s antiquated statute on pot possession, according to a festivalgoer I spoke with named Jesse. “I got popped for around an ounce a few counties over years ago and they just gave me a $50 fine.”
Some Kentucky municipalities have eliminated criminal penalties for pot possession in recent years. Louisville, home of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, is one of them. The Metro Council decriminalized minor pot possession in 2019, making the “investigation, citations, and arrests” pertaining to adult possession of a “small amount of marijuana” the lowest law enforcement priority. It’s not a highly publicized ordinance, so tourists are often in the dark. But not the locals.
“Nobody really worries about weed around here anymore,” a young Greta Van Fleet fan named Brad told me. “That’s why I don’t understand why the festival cares if we bring it or not.”
The thing is, they probably don’t. However, as long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, allowing a Schedule I controlled substance—the same classification as meth and heroin—onto the fairgrounds would certainly cripple the organizer’s ability to secure general liability insurance. And man, considering the amount of bourbon that was being served in that place, they need all they can fucking get! It’s not like the festival was allowing people to bring in alcoholic beverages either. Nope, they were unwittingly forcing patrons to sell off their first born and/or take on a second mortgage to afford the ridiculously priced beer, cocktails, and yes, every brand of bourbon imaginable being sold wherever people weren’t pissing it out. Had cannabis achieved legal status like alcohol, ganja would have presumably received the same capitalistic courtesy. They would have also gouged the shit out of it.
“If it were legal, we couldn’t afford to get high here,” Ashton from Lexington, Kentucky told me. “I’ll always bring my own.”
By the time Pearl Jam went on Saturday night, I knew, and without question, that the gatekeepers of the Bourbon & Beyond festival indeed didn’t give a shit. Not about weed, they didn’t. The smoke wafting across the fairgrounds during Thursday’s lineup, as Alanis Morrisette and Jack White closed the evening with killer sets, was no match for the odoriferous pungency assaulting my olfactory senses once Eddie Vedder and crew plugged in. Sure, the bourbon continued to flow like a busted sewer line throughout their two-hour set. That was evident. Women were storming off left and right as their beer-bellied significant others chased them down in protest of some perceived bad behavior. Arms were grabbed and hearts were presumably broken.
One man that passed me was so ripped out of his gourd that he folded backward as though he had just popped out of the Circus Circus, elevator scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter’s attorney, Dr. Gonzo, searches his coat for a lighter, jabbering about how he thinks “there’s something wrong with me.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Man, that dude is going to be a prime candidate for a brain transplant by morning,” I thought to myself. There was something definitely wrong with him. Many others stumbled through the grass like bourbon-dazed zombies, conceivably unsure of their whereabouts, searching for answers that I was sure they would never find. From the stage, even Vedder could tell that the crowd was south of crocked, specifically calling out a man in the middle of the herd that he referred to as “Frank” for disconnecting from reality. “I’m not sure if it’s from the bourbon or the beyond,” Vedder said.
Don’t get me wrong. Although I did, in fact, fear that jungle law would inevitably take over if the barrels didn’t run dry (or if they did), and we’d all have to resort to some rather ruthless tactics to make it out alive, the air of the event remained reasonably peaceful. I never once saw anyone get their ass kicked or dragged out by police kicking and screaming. Hey man, that’s rather impressive, considering that Saturday night’s attendance consisted of a record-breaking 110,000 bourbon drinkers and hellraisers. Many neighborhood bars can’t even keep their patrons from throwing fists once more than fifty people start drinking together, but somehow festivalgoers reached a truce. Sure, Bourbon & Beyond was a sardine can under Kentucky’s slice of the universe, but an asylum it was not, even with the right kind of people. Unless you count the nuts, who dropped a month’s salary on overpriced booze for four days of fun, then I suppose we were all certifiable. Oh well, all in the spirit of good times. Send in the Ibuprofen.
The soundtrack to this lunacy, however, was one that I won’t soon forget. Thank you for that, Kentucky. For all those couples discussing divorce in the weeks to come, I wish you the best of luck. Contention, hurt feelings, and everything that manifests from the rumble is, unfortunately, often par for the carousal. Perhaps in the years to come, the state’s legislative forces will get serious about legalizing the leaf and give their otherwise law-abiding citizens more options than Jim and Jack. Not everyone can hold their liquor. And not everyone can get stoned under the current laws.
Surprisingly, most of the bands scheduled to perform didn’t use their platform to stand up for marijuana legalization. Not even Alanis Morrisette, who admitted to High Times back in 2010 that she was an avid pot fan. But that didn’t matter. She was still one of the most ass-kicking highlights of the entire weekend, and she did play “Mary Jane.” However, Pearl Jam, arguably the biggest act to grace the stage, spoke out a little on the issue. It happened after Eddie Vedder spotted a young, 10-year-old fan in the front row jamming out to the concert with his family. Parents take note: That is how you raise well-rounded children. After a little banter about the youth keeping rock n’ roll alive, Eddie reached out to the young man with a lighthearted warning.
“I was going to lecture you over the dangers of pot smoking, but it’s not even legal in Kentucky,” he declared. “But perhaps by the time you get old enough to do that, it will be, and you’ll be able to make the decision for yourself. You’re obviously a smart kid with great taste in music. He’ll be fine,” the singer concluded.
Who knows, maybe we all would. Sure, there will be some folks who fuck it all up, while others will learn to manage, survive, and even prosper in the wake of whatever freedoms the controls of our respective states decide we are deserved. That has been the case since the inception of this thing called America. But even the responsible slip and fall. That’s no excuse to continue punishing the population under the illusion that Uncle Sam cares about our safety and well-being. We don’t need that. Never did. We’re grown-ups and, as Eddie Vedder so eloquently put it, capable of making our own choices. Many will learn from their mistakes. Others won’t. They’ll keep on trying and never achieve any balance in life, blaming everyone else for their problems. But not all of us are the same. It’s important to understand that the societal downtrodden can’t always be expected to do the right thing, and they can’t always be saved from themselves. Offering some semblance of protection and hope for their futures with foolish laws won’t solve the problem. It’s certainly no benefit to the rest of us. Dumb shit will always see that people go to jail, and dumb people will always end up there. It doesn’t really matter who is held accountable. The politicians and citizens are equally to blame for holding up and, in some cases, reversing progress. However, this is the wrong path. We, every single one of us, should embrace common sense and always try to move forward, even if we don’t always agree. Thanks again, Kentucky. We’ll see you in two-to-three years for Bourbon, Bud & Beyond.
On Aug. 22, the U.S. Forest Service Human Resources published a notice to remind employees that cannabis consumption is not allowed, even if they live in a state where it’s legal.
“Several states now allow recreational and or medicinal use of marijuana. However, marijuana is still an illegal drug per federal law,” the notice said. “All Forest Service employees must remain drug-free and refrain from illegal drug use whether on or off duty regardless of state laws. There have been no changes to the panel of drugs contained in the list of Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substance Act.”
The notice also listed the current rules for drug testing protocol. First, it warned that any employee can be subjected to drug testing for cannabis if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they have been consuming. Second, employees whose jobs are listed as Test Designated Positions (TDPs) will also continue to be drug tested. “Test Designated Positions generally carry safety or security responsibilities tied to the Forest Service mission. Job functions associated with TDPs relate to public health and safety, the protection of life and property, law enforcement, or national security.”
Finally, should an employee test positive for either cannabis or any other illegal substance they “will be subject to mandatory administrative actions per DR 4430-792-2, Drug-Free Workplace Program, which includes discipline up to removal for the first finding of illegal drug use.”
Although CBD was legalized nationwide through the 2018 Farm Bill, the U.S. Forest Service’s notice states that it is also off limits. “[CBD] can be inaccurately labeled as having no to low levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol, and yet actually contain high levels. If you use CBD, you could test positive for illegal drug use.”
Some U.S. Forest Service Employees are tasked with removing illegal cannabis plants found on national forest land, and cleaning up any trash or other materials left behind. However, in 2018 a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that after reviewing these sites, there was evidence that a proper cleanup was not conducted.
“We performed onsite inspections of eight marijuana grow sites that were eradicated in FYs 2014- 2016 in California and two marijuana grow sites in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky,” the report states. “Hazardous materials were present at seven of the eight grow sites in California, and infrastructure such as irrigation piping, trash, or equipment were found at all eight sites. The hazardous material and infrastructure were still present several years after eradication for some of the grow sites.”
A study published in July 2019 found that legal cannabis can reduce illegal grows in national forests. “Arguably, our models hint that outright, national recreational cannabis legalization would be one means by which illegal grows on national forests could be made to disappear,” the researchers wrote. They also stated their belief that taxes on legal cannabis is what drives people to cultivate illegally on federal land.
Other agencies in the U.S. are also updating or reiterating current rules and restrictions of cannabis for employees. Last August, data showed that commercial truck drivers consumed cannabis more than any other substance. However in May 2022, the U.S Department of Transportation shared that 10,276 commercial truck drivers tested positive for cannabis, and this violation of the department’s rules contributed to a nationwide shortage of drivers who couldn’t keep their jobs. Most recently in August, draft rules were published on the Federal Register that warned medical examiners of commercial drivers that CBD could still contain THC, which is not allowed. “A driver who uses marijuana cannot be physically qualified even if marijuana is legal in the State where the driver resides for recreational, medicinal, or religious use,” the rules stated.