The narrative of Kentucky's approach to medical cannabis took a dramatic turn recently when, after a decade of failed attempts and an extended legislative session, Senate Bill 47 finally passed the state legislature. This historic event unfolded just hours before the adjournment of the 2023 session. The bill, receiving a significant margin of bipartisan support in the Kentucky House of Representatives and State Senate, legalizes medical marijuana use, marking Kentucky as the 38th state to do so under federal law.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, often referred to as Gov. Beshear, signed it into law Friday morning amidst a bipartisan crowd of Kentucky lawmakers and medical marijuana advocates. However, the actual implementation of the medical cannabis program will not commence until the beginning of 2025.
In the same ceremony, showing that a Democratic governor and a GOP supermajority legislature can still "get those tough things, important things that Kentuckians really want done," Beshear also signed into law House Bill 551 to legalize sports betting. This bill had passed the Senate just 12 minutes after the House passed SB 47, indicating a day of significant progress for the state.
The Passage and Impact of Senate Bill 47
The passage of Senate Bill 47 was a cause for celebration among those who had pushed for the legalization of medical cannabis in Frankfort over the past decade, coming close to the victory line in recent years. In fact, the House had passed a medical marijuana bill two out of the last three years, only to have it die in the Senate due to lack of sufficient support in the socially conservative Republican caucus.
This year was different. The bill started in the Senate, passing through that chamber for the first time two weeks ago by a significant margin. As part of the process, in the committee meeting, longtime legalization advocate Eric Crawford — a quadriplegic since a vehicle accident 30 years ago — shared his personal story. He narrated to legislators how marijuana is the only drug that has effectively treated his severe pain and muscle spasms without side effects, urging them to consider the human impact of their decision.
"We need your help to make us be safer, so we don't have to use all these pharmaceuticals and opioids," Crawford said. "Help us not be criminals. Let's utilize this for sick people."
Detailed Provisions of the Bill
Under SB 47, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services would be responsible for the implementation, operation, oversight, and regulation of the program and its cultivators, dispensaries, and producers. This responsibility also extends to issuing medical cannabis cards to registered qualified patients, making a new wave of medical marijuana products accessible to those suffering from a qualifying medical condition.
Patients with at least six medical conditions would be eligible to receive a medical marijuana card in Kentucky's program. The conditions include: • Any type or form 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 that has proven resistant to other conventional medical treatments • Post-traumatic stress disorder
These conditions were determined based on the understanding that they respond favorably to the use of medicinal cannabis.
Furthermore, a patient could also be eligible if diagnosed with a medical condition or disease and the newly established Kentucky Center for Cannabis at the University of Kentucky determines they could be helped by its use. The center would determine, through data and research, that the patient is "likely to receive medical, therapeutic, or palliative benefits."
Card holders would have to be 18 years old or a caretaker for an eligible child. Patients receiving medical marijuana at a dispensary would not be able to smoke it, but would be able to consume it through vaporizing or edible and topical products.
Guidelines for Patients and Law Enforcement
Rep. Jason Nemes, a supporter and the lead sponsor of medical marijuana bills in previous sessions, emphasized that under the bill, patients who smoked marijuana instead of consuming it through other methods would be breaking the law and subject to losing their medical cannabis cards.
"You will lose your card if you get caught smoking and you will go to jail, as you ought to," Nemes said. "This is not a wink wink, nod nod medical program."
This makes clear the commitment to regulate the use of medical marijuana strictly, ensuring it does not become a controlled substance misused beyond its intended palliative benefits.
Despite some opposition citing the need for more studies proving the efficacy and safety of marijuana as a medical treatment, the progress that has been made is a testament to the years of hard work and the personal stories shared by advocates like Eric Crawford.
In fact, Sen. Steve West, the lead sponsor of SB 47, said the passage of the bill "is a truly historic day here in the commonwealth and one that many people deserve — especially the constituents who’ve approached me over the years to share their stories."
Celebrating the Historic Moment
Beshear cheered the passage of HB 551, noting that he had signed an executive order last year to help some individuals with certified medical conditions avoid prosecution for possessing and using marijuana. This was partly out of frustration with the legislature and also an incentive for them to pass it into law.
"Today the General Assembly finally took action and passed a bill to legalize medical cannabis – something the majority of Kentuckians support," Beshear wrote. "I am thankful this progress has been made, and I will proudly sign this bill into law tomorrow."
In the signing ceremony in the Capitol rotunda Friday morning, Beshear and Republican legislators spoke about the historic nature of the moment and praised each other for pushing it into law — celebrating the fact that thousands who are in pain and suffering will be helped.
Nearly choking up, Nemes said, "there are thousands and thousands of Kentuckians who just want to be and want to feel better, and this will help them with that."
The changes set forth by Senate Bill 47 indicate a significant step forward for the state of Kentucky. As a result of these changes, qualifying individuals suffering from severe medical conditions now have a new, legally-sanctioned avenue for relief, signalling a pivotal moment in the state's healthcare approach.