Foes push back against medical marijuana bill in Kentucky

Opponents of legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky have pushed back as the focus shifts to the Senate

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Opponents of legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky pushed back Wednesday as the Senate gets set to decide the fate of a bill that won House passage by a wide margin.

At a statehouse news conference, the lineup of opponents included a prosecutor and a doctor. Warren County Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Cohron said more research of medical cannabis is needed and warned that legalization could spur future efforts to allow recreational use.

“This is a slippery slope that we do not need — for the youth of ... Kentucky — to go down," he said. “We need to have the research done. If it's a drug, we'll have the FDA deem it a drug."

Those arguments are an effort to keep Kentucky among the minority of states that have not legalized medical cannabis, a leading supporter of the bill said.

“The research has been done, and Kentucky is 24 years behind on cannabis legislation," said Jaime Montalvo, executive director of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana, speaking in an interview.

Medical marijuana is already legal in 33 states. Kentucky's legislation would be the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country, its supporters have said.

“This is not about fun," Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, the bill's lead sponsor, told reporters after last month's House vote. “This is about healing. This is about health."

The legislation secured House passage on a 65-30 vote Feb. 20. It marked the first time a medical marijuana bill passed either legislative chamber in Kentucky.

Senate leaders this week assigned the bill to the Judiciary Committee. The committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, told the Courier Journal: "I know it won’t get a hearing until I’m OK with it, and for sure I’ve still got questions right now."

The bill would allow doctors to prescribe cannabis and set up a regulatory framework for patients to obtain it at approved dispensaries. Smoking medical cannabis would not be permitted under the bill. It could be consumed in forms such as pills and oils.

A regulatory board would determine what conditions would qualify for doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients. The House-passed version would guarantee that approved conditions for a cannabis prescription would include chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea or vomiting.

Supporters have pointed to medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids in a state that has been ravaged by opioid-related addictions. Opponents tried to counter that argument on Wednesday.

“We've got to make sure we're not trading one drug crisis ... for another drug crisis," said Richard Nelson, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center.

Northern Kentucky doctor Michael Fletcher said efforts to boost the quality of patient care can be achieved only through FDA-approved medications. He characterized medical marijuana as not being “in the interest of patient safety or public health."

As an alternative, the bill's opponents have pointed to another measure that would establish the Kentucky Center for Cannabis Research at the University of Kentucky to advance study of cannabis use for medical treatment.

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The medical marijuana legalization bill is House Bill 136.