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Beshear makes Kentucky history, signs medical marijuana bill into law

State lawmakers gave final passage to a bill to legalize access to medical cannabis for people suffering from a defined list of debilitating illnesses.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Update: On Friday, March 31, 2023, Gov. Andy Beshear signed Kentucky's medical marijuana bill into law. He also signed a bill legalizing sports betting.

Medical marijuana advocates achieved a long-sought victory Thursday, when Kentucky lawmakers gave final passage to a measure to legalize access to medical cannabis for people suffering from a defined list of debilitating illnesses.

In the waning hours of this year's legislative session, the Republican-dominated House voted 66-33 to send the measure to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. 

Supporters pushed the bill over the finish line after years of setbacks when other versions to open Kentucky to legal medical cannabis died.

“This 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,” Republican Sen. Stephen West, the bill's lead sponsor, said in a triumphant statement after the House vote.

Kentuckians with qualified medical conditions will have to wait to gain access to medical cannabis under the bill. Senate Bill 47 specifies that the medical marijuana program won't take effect until the start of 2025, to allow time for state health officials to draft regulations to oversee the program.

The governor took executive action last year to relax the state's prohibition on medical cannabis, but he has said it’s no substitute for outright legalization, which required legislative approval. 

Beshear's action allows Kentuckians suffering from a number of severe health conditions to legally possess small amounts of medical marijuana properly purchased in another state.

Under the bill headed to the governor's desk, medical cannabis could be prescribed for a list of conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy, chronic nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The bill would still prohibit smokable cannabis products.

“We need your help to make us be safer, so we don’t have to use all these pharmaceuticals and opioids,” longtime medical marijuana advocate Eric Crawford told a House committee that advanced the bill earlier Thursday. “Help us not be criminals. Let’s legalize this for sick people.”

Under the bill, a person would have to be approved for a card allowing its use. A patient under 18 couldn’t possess or acquire medical cannabis without assistance from a designated caregiver.

The bill gained a crucial breakthrough in mid-March when it was passed by the Senate, where some earlier versions had died in the past. Republicans have supermajorities in both legislative chambers.

The bill's opponents kept up their resistance even with the House poised to pass it.

Michael Johnson, representing The Family Foundation, told the House committee on Thursday that he's “truly sympathetic” for people suffering from chronic pain and other debilitating illnesses. But he claimed there's “insufficient scientific evidence that marijuana is safe and effective as a medication.”

The bill's leading proponents said they were open to revisions in next year's legislative session. That includes making it clear that school districts would be allowed to prohibit its employees, including school nurses, from administering medical marijuana products to students, they said.

“This is a long, complicated bill that’s been hammered out over a five-year period," West told the House panel. "It’s clear there are going to be technical changes in the future, next year, I’m sure.”

Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis, an advocacy group, spent all day at the Capitol. Some members have lost their children to debilitating diseases, and it's why they push for an alternative medicine to addictive painkillers.

"Not one medication; not one surgery; not any diet helped her stop those seizures," Alexandria Fulkerson said of her daughter. "And she did that for four years. And I watched her seize her life away. I never really got to have her just be a baby, smile at me. And that's what people don't understand with this medical cannabis. It's not to heal them. It's to give them some sort of life." 

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