Will Kentucky be the next state to legalize pot?

Somewhere, Gatewood Galbraith is smiling.

The late Kentucky lawyer was the state’s unofficial ambassador of weed, his charmingly accented voice dripping in both sarcasm and enthusiasm as he made his case for legalization.

If he were here in 2022, he would see a handful of bills in the Kentucky legislature to change marijuana laws:

● Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, has filed two bills that would decriminalize and legalize certain amounts of marijuana.

● Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, has gained bipartisan support for his bill establishing a medical marijuana program.

● Rep. Rachel Roberts, D-Newport, has filed an amendment to Nemes’ bill adding post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying medical condition. She also plans to file a legalization bill.

“This is Kentucky's product, right? This is a signature industry for us just like bourbon and horse racing and always has been,” Roberts says. “It's just not regulated. It's not taxed. And it's causing people to suffer incarceration as a result. It is something that people are asking for … My job is to represent the voice of the 45,000 people that I serve, and when we poll in my district, people are for legalization of cannabis.”

Roberts plans to file a comprehensive bill to “move the conversation forward,” she says. In a nutshell, her bill would legalize, expunge, treat and tax. She uses the acronym LETTs Grow. Her second bill establishes a Kentucky working group to meet throughout the interim to study legalizing cannabis.

“My hope is twofold: That we've thought this through in case the federal government beats us to the punch, and that we as a legislative body realize that this is coming and we need to prepare for it,” Roberts says.

Legislators and advocates are watching the Nemes medical marijuana bill with the greatest interest.

Will Kentucky become the 38th state to legalize medical marijuana? Mississippi became No. 37 last week, and bipartisan discussions are underway in the current General Assembly to make Kentucky next.

The nexus of power in the legislature is the Republican Party, from whose ranks the most ardent supporter of medicinal marijuana has emerged.

Nemes has shepherded HB 136 since 2020, when it passed the House 65-30 before COVID-19 sidelined the session. Passage in the House looks hopeful this session, Nemes says. The Senate is the question mark at this point.

A medicinal cannabis program, set up in the Kentucky Department of Public Health, could be operational by January 2023.

Prior to his 2016 election, Nemes had never supported pot, hadn’t tried it, and, he says, “didn’t want to hang around anybody that was smoking marijuana, because I thought that kind of person lacked ambition.”

Once he was elected, a group of eight people asked to meet with him, among them a gentleman with multiple sclerosis who described how marijuana helped his muscle spasticity. Nemes was inspired to study the issue, talking with doctors and nurses he trusted.

He decided he was wrong about medicinal cannabis.

“Nobody can say, I think acting honorably, that it doesn't help some people,” Nemes says. He has one caveat, and it’s a big one. “One fear I have is that this will lead us to recreational and I don't want to do that. I'm against it,” Nemes says.

Under HB 136, home cultivation of marijuana would not be allowed. Patients could be required to vaporize whole-plant products.

Amounts a patient could possess and other rules would be set by a board of physicians and advisers.

HB 136 says “A list of qualifying medical conditions for which medicinal cannabis practitioners may provide a patient with a written certification for the use of medicinal cannabis ... shall, at a minimum, include the following:

a. Any type or form of cancer, regardless of stage;
b. Chronic, severe, intractable, or debilitating pain;
c. Epilepsy or any other intractable seizure disorder;
d. Multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms, or spasticity; and
e. Nausea or vomiting.

For a full copy of proposed legislation and amendments, visit this link.

HB 224 by Kulkarni makes possession of a personal-use quantity of cannabis exempt from civil or criminal penalty and takes up expungement of certain pot offenses. HB 225 involves a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee the right of an individual 21 or older to possess, use, buy or sell one ounce or less of cannabis.

“It really is only a matter of time until every state and commonwealth, including Kentucky, has passed a legalization law,” says a professor in addiction and marijuana policy at Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University.

According to Alex Kreit, who is also director of the Chase Center on Addiction Law & Policy, “I’ll leave it to the political prognosticators to gauge the odds of a bill passing this session, but I do think that marijuana legalization in Kentucky is a matter of when and not if at this point,” Kreit says.

Support for taxing and regulating marijuana continues to increase, the law professor says. The Pew Research Center, which has polled on the issue annually, found last year that less than 10% of adults said marijuana should be illegal for all purposes, and 60% supported legalization for recreational use.

“This is an issue that has support across the political spectrum, including in some deeply conservative states. In 2020, voters in South Dakota and Montana approved marijuana legalization ballot measures, so this isn’t just an issue that is popular in so-called blue states," Kreit says.

“Although I know that there is opposition that may make getting a bill through the legislature difficult in the near future, legalization has the potential to generate a lot of good jobs in Kentucky, especially in the agriculture space. So, some lawmakers who are skeptical right now might end up being convinced that the benefits of legalization outweigh the costs when they take a closer look.”

Federally, a draft bill is being worked on, but questions in some states and among researchers call into question the medical effects of high-THC cannabis, including a possible link to psychosis.

In his annual “airing of grievances” on the Seinfeld-inspired Festivus holiday, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., shared a couple weed-related tweets.

“Democrats control the House, Senate, and White House and we still can’t get cannabis banking reform bills passed. This should be a complete no brainer, as so many states have legalized now and we need business to operate,” Paul wrote on Twitter.

In another, Paul tweeted: “I would go much further and end the federal war on a plant entirely, but at LEAST let legal business operate as legal business.”

Paul’s likely opponent is Louisville’s Charles Booker, a former state representative who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Senate. Booker tweeted in November: “When I get to the Senate, I will file the legislation to finally legalize cannabis, and will call it the Gatewood Galbraith Justice and Healing Act.”

Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include photography, rewatching "Better Call Saul" and "Succession," and playing the "Alphabet Game" on Zoom with six siblings across the globe.