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Poll finds Kentucky adults overwhelmingly favor legalizing medical marijuana; bill looms this week


By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As lawmakers move close to legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky, a new poll shows that an overwhelming number of Kentucky adults would support such a measure, and that a solid majority would approve legalizing the drug under any circumstance.

The latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that nine in 10 of adults in the state favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and nearly six in 10 say it should be legalized generally. But when asked if they favored legalizing it just for recreational purposes, that number dropped to 49 percent.

Support for medical marijuana has increased since 2012, when 78 percent supported it for medicinal purposes, 38 percent supported it under any circumstances, and 26 percent supported it for recreational purposes.

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Jennifer Chubisnki, vice-president of research and evaluation at Interact for Health, which co-sponsors the poll, said it was important to remember that the policy landscape around marijuana has shifted since 2012.

“In 2012, 18 states and the District of Columbia had legalized medical marijuana, compared to 33 states and the District of Columbia today,” she said in a news release. “Further, in 2012, the first policies to legalize recreational marijuana were passed in Colorado and Washington state. Today, recreational use is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia.”

The poll is timely since House Bill 136, the medical marijuana bill, is expected to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee this Wednesday (Feb. 12). Of the 100 members in the House, 50 are co-sponsors.

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, the bill’s primary sponsor, said on Kentucky Educational Television Monday night that he thinks this is the year it will pass.

A medical-marijuana bill passed the House Judiciary Committee 16-1 last year, but with only five days left in the legislative session and opposition in the Senate, it did not get a vote in the full House.

Senate President Robert Stivers has said he wouldn’t support a medical-marijuana bill without medical studies to back it up. He told reporters last month that there could be a “narrow path” forward for Nemes’ bill, but it will be a balancing act to weigh the good and bad of passing such a law.

Rep. Jason Nemes

A companion bill has been filed in the Senate, Senate Bill 107, with 11 of the Senate’s 38 members signed on as co-sponsors; its primary sponsor is Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris.

The poll found that support for legalizing marijuana was strong across party lines. Support for medical marijuana was the highest in each group, with 95 percent of Democrats supporting it, 92 percent of independents and 90 percent of Republicans.

Those numbers dropped in each of the groups when asked if they supported it under any circumstance, with 68 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans saying they would favor allowing residents to buy and use marijuana under any circumstances.

Only 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans said they would support legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

The poll’s margin of error for the statewide results is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. It surveyed a random sample of 1,559 Kentucky adults via landlines and cell phones Oct. 16 through Dec. 6,.

Four in 10 Kentucky adults said they knew someone who regularly used marijuana. This was the first time this question has been asked.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which co-sponsors the poll, said the results were consistent with what the foundation learned at its annual forum in September, which focused on the public-health impacts of legalizing medical marijuana.

“What we heard at the forum, and what this poll confirms, is that support for medical marijuana is very strong, but we also learned that it’s well ahead of the science showing that marijuana is safe and effective for most of the medical conditions claimed by pro-legalization advocates,” Chandler said in a news release.

He added, “Despite the continuing lack of evidence, dozens of states have legalized medical marijuana. If Kentucky follows suit, our goal must be to put in place measures to protect the public health going forward.”

He also cautioned that if such a law were to pass in Kentucky, safeguards must be in place to protect the state’s youth, since legalizing marijuana, even for medical purposes, makes it more available and socially acceptable.

About 16 percent of Kentucky high school students use marijuana monthly, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That’s down from nearly 29 percent in 1997, but the rate has held fairly steady over the past 15 years.

Nemes and others have suggested that medical marijuana could help decrease the use of opioids in the state.

Rep. Scott Lewis, R-Hartford, told Jacob Mulliken of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, “I have had people that I trust tell me that there are a lot of medical benefits to it, and with the opioid crisis that we have — if that can be prescribed instead, it would sure make a lot of sense. I intend on voting on it.”

Sen. Matt Castlen

Sens. Matt Castlen, R-Owensboro, and Robby Mills, R-Henderson, told Mulliken they did not see themselves voting in favor of the bill. Mills called it “poor public policy” and said, “I’m opposed to that bill and I still think that there are a lot of questions as far as legalization in any form.”

Castlen told Mulliken he couldn’t vote for the current form of the bill, and said it needs more research. “There is no doubt that this plant has benefits, but I need entrusted sources and would like to see our universities have the opportunity to do trials,” he said. “No one has brought any university studies to my office and I need facts to make a decision. I couldn’t support it as written.”

One study suggests the number of opioid prescriptions declines when medical marijuana is legalized, but Shanna Babalonis, a nationally recognized researcher who spoke at the foundation’s conference, cautioned that the study only shows a correlation, not causation.

The American Marijuana study compared the states’ opioid-prescribing rate one year before legalization and one year after legalization. It found that out of 19 states, 15 showed a fall of opioid prescribing rate one year after legalization, and only four increased their usage.

“It just says that if you live in a state with medical marijuana, there are more/less opioids prescribed,” Babalonis said in an e-mail. “We have no idea if this has anything to do with medical marijuana or opioid policy, physician training, addiction awareness, patients being worried about becoming addicted, etc.”

At the September conference, Babalonis called for more randomized, well-controlled, well-executed, placebo-controlled research on the medical benefits on marijuana, stating that at this time, “There is no evidence that suggests cannabis can help with any aspect of the opiod crisis.”

Babalonis is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky medical school, in its Center on Drug and Alcohol Research. She has a doctorate in behavioral neuroscience and psychopharmacology.


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