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Medical marijuana proponents have their say; opponents on deck for next meeting

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

A legislative committee heard from proponents of medical marijuana last week with opponents to be given an opportunity at the next meeting.

Proponents tried to make it clear the marijuana was in no way for recreational use or a revenue source for Kentucky. Opponents have argued that marijuana is a gateway drug that opens the door for much worse later.

Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, and the co-chairman of the Interim Joint Committee on Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations, promised both sides of the issue would be discussed before anything moves forward.

Reps. Diane St. Onge and Jason Nemes testify about medical marijuana proposals before the committee on Friday. (Photo by Tom Latek, Kentucky Today)

Rep. Diane St. Onge, R-Ft. Wright, told the panel no legislation has been filed for the 2019 General Assembly yet. “We are open to and are seeking stakeholders’ interest and views on this and will be moving forward.”

She insisted it would not be a path to legalization of recreational marijuana nor would it be considered a revenue source for the state.

St. Onge described its intentions: “For Kentuckians who are suffering from debilitating illnesses, who may be in the last stages of their life and who have been treated with prescription drugs to the extent their quality of life is considerably diminished, we are providing an alternative way for them.”

One provision would be for those recommended for treatment to be allowed to possess up to six mature plants and six seedlings, half of the amount proposed last year in a bill sponsored by Rep. John Sims, D-Flemingsburg, which had hearings before the House Judiciary Committee during the 2018 General Assembly, but had no committee vote taken.

Cost is a factor that has proponents proposing homegrown plants, St. Onge said.

“The cost of going to a dispensary can be prohibitive for some of our less fortunate,” she said. “To be able to home grow, in a very tight regulatory framework, reduces the cost to the individual who needs this. The distance to get to a dispensary may be fine for some, but is very, very difficult for many other Kentuckians.”

She said the seeds would not be contaminated with such things as fentanyl, which has appeared in some opioids.

Last year’s proposal listed qualifying conditions to obtain medical marijuana, but St. Onge testified that was taken out in favor of letting physicians issue recommendations to patients.

She added of the 31 states where medical marijuana is legal, half of them allow for home grows.

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, who is also an advocate, testified that “It’s important for us that this is not a ‘wink-wink, nod-nod’ medical bill. This is a medical bill, it is not a recreational bill.”

He said he received some pushback on last year’s proposal, so he is strengthening it in several ways.

“We do have a regulatory agency we would create: The Department of Cannabis Administration, whose job is to make sure doctors know what they need to do and not overprescribe. We don’t want any pill mills or marijuana mills like we’ve had before.”

Nemes said there would not by any sharing or sales of medical marijuana, or people could lose their cards and be prosecuted.

He told the panel smoking of medical marijuana could not be allowed in public or public accommodation, a landlord could ban someone from growing plants and the supply would be limited to 30 days, compared to 90 that was in last year’s bill.

Nemes said many insurance companies cover opioid prescriptions while they do not cover medical marijuana, which could make it cost prohibitive to many without the provision for home grow.

Their proposal would also keep people from states that do not allow medical marijuana from coming to Kentucky to obtain it, although those from states that have legalized it, such as Ohio, could purchase a 10-day supply here.

Local governments could also opt out of letting medical marijuana processers set up shop in their cities or counties.

“We are very serious about this being a medical cannabis bill,” Nemes told the committee. “This is not recreational. That is something we do not support.”

Several committee members said they would like to have legislation to look at before they commit on the issue. After the meeting, Nemes told Kentucky Today that he will appear before the Interim Joint Judiciary Committee on Sept. 7 to discuss the topic and hopes to have a draft bill ready by then.

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