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Eastern Ky. representative Cluster Howard proposes legislation to legalize recreational marijuana

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

An eastern Kentucky lawmaker is proposing legislation for the 2020 session that would legalize recreational marijuana, with much of the revenue to help the state’s ailing public pension systems.

Rep. Cluster Howard, D-Jackson, says his bill would govern home use and commercial sales, while dedicating a sizable portion of tax and license revenues to the state retirement systems’ unfunded liabilities.  His bill would also decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of cannabis and provide free expungements for those convicted of a marijuana-related misdemeanor.

Rep. Cluster Howard, D-Jackson, is proposing legislation to make recreational marijuana legal in Kentucky. (Kentucky Today file photo)

“Other states have shown that legalizing cannabis for adult use is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” said Howard.  “It’s a major revenue generator; it frees up critical jail and prison space; it helps counteract the deadly opioid epidemic; and it gives farmers a major new cash crop.  The longer we wait, the more we miss out on these benefits.”

Seventy-five percent of the license and wholesale tax fees would go to Kentucky Employees Retirement System, which is the nation’s lowest-funded; and 25 percent would be provided to the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System.  Once funding levels for both systems reach 100 percent, future state license and wholesale tax revenues tied to cannabis would be split evenly among the two systems.

Howard noted that Michigan just reported that its first eight days of recreational cannabis sales totaled $1.6 million.  Illinois, meanwhile, will begin recreational cannabis sales in January and is expecting purchases to be between $1.6 billion to $2.5 billion a year, with state revenues as high as $676 million dollars annually.

“Illinois is three times our size, so if we got a third of that, we could boost our budget by more than $200 million a year,” Howard said.  “Putting that money toward public pensions would free up other state revenues for things like our public schools and universities, and we would see even more money from related economic development and reduced prison, court and drug-treatment costs.”

A study by the Legislative Research Commission says that it would be difficult to gauge the financial impact of adult cannabis sales in Kentucky, since there were too many indeterminate factors.

Under Howard’s proposal the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would oversee four types of licenses:  cultivator, processor, tester and retailer.

Anyone with a prior misdemeanor marijuana conviction that hasn’t been expunged, or who has been convicted of a felony in the last five years or other controlled-substance crime within the past two years, would be barred from purchasing a license.

Each county would have the chance to have at least two retailers selling cannabis and related products, but larger counties would be barred from having more than one per 2,300 people.  Retailers would only be able to sell marijuana-related products.

Sales would be limited to those 21 and older, and smoking cannabis in public would be prohibited.

Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Gray of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, of which Kentucky Today is a part, says Kentucky Baptists believe the legalization of marijuana would be detrimental to Kentucky families.

“Our newly elected Governor (Andy Beshear) wants to help families. We’re convinced this gateway drug will harm Kentuckians and their families,” Gray stated.  “Statistics show an increase in DUI arrests and negative economic impact in states that have legalized marijuana.”

The 2020 General Assembly convenes next month.

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