University of Kentucky Opens New Cannabis Research Center

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.”

That didn’t sit right with members of legislature, including Kentucky state Senate President Robert Stivers.

“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.”

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Kentucky Governor Approves Cannabis Research Facility

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear on Tuesday approved the creation of a cannabis research facility in the state, although he used his veto power to strike selected passages of the legislation. Beshear’s approval of the measure, House Bill 604, comes one week after the Democratic governor said he would take steps to legalize medical cannabis in the Bluegrass State.

Under the legislation, the Kentucky Center for Cannabis Research would be established at the University of Kentucky. The new facility would be tasked with planning and conducting research “to advance the study of the use of cannabis and cannabis derivatives for the treatment of certain medical conditions and diseases,” according to the text of the statute.

The university has already conducted some research into cannabis and has an established relationship with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The bill also requires the center to apply for approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to cultivate cannabis and codifies eligibility requirements for individuals interested in participating in clinical cannabis research.

The legislation was passed by the Kentucky legislature earlier this month during the waning days of the legislative session. The bill received overwhelming approval from lawmakers after the state Senate failed to approve House Bill 136, a medical cannabis legalization bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives

“This convenes researchers and scholars from across the state on this issue so we can reduce bottlenecks in the research and regulatory processes,” GOP Representative Kimberly Poore Moser, the sponsor of the legislation, said about House Bill 604 last month. “Our goal is to figure out what conditions cannabis can treat, and by doing so, make Kentucky a national leader in research, since only one other university has a similar program.”

Beshear Uses Line-Item Veto

Beshear used his line-item veto power to strike portions of the bill he did not support. The governor approved the legislative language authorizing the creation of the center, but removed other sections including provisions he said limited the purpose of the center and the powers of the university president to appoint its advisory board.

“I am vetoing these parts because they 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 wrote in his veto message.

“I am also vetoing these parts because ongoing appropriations may be necessary,” he added.

Because the state legislature has adjourned for the legislative session, Beshear’s line-item vetoes will stand and cannot be overridden by lawmakers.

Earlier this month, Beshear said that he would explore taking executive action to advance the legalization of medical pot in Kentucky if lawmakers failed to pass House Bill 136. After the bill died in the state Senate, the governor released a plan last week to get medicinal cannabis to patients who need it. 

“If they are not going to take action—not even give it a committee hearing in the Senate—then I believe it’s my obligation to see what’s possible given the will of the people and their desire to move forward on this,” Besear said. “It’s time to certainly move the conversation forward.”

“Would I have preferred if the legislature had passed it?” Beshear asked. “Yes. But they didn’t.”

Beshear added that he has directed his general counsel to provide advice about what executive actions can be taken to move the medical cannabis process along without the approval of lawmakers. He also said that he would appoint a medical cannabis advisory panel to hold meetings across Kentucky to get residents’ input on the issue. The governor’s office has also established an email account (GovMedicalCannabisAdvisoryTeam@ky.gov) so that residents who are unable to attend the public hearings in person can still provide input.

But Republican lawmakers balked at Beshear’s plan to take unilateral action on medical cannabis legalization. Kentucky state Senate President Robert Stivers said that such action would likely be unconstitutional.

“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.”

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