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Medical marijuana eligibility would expand in Kentucky under a new GOP bill

Cannabis growing in a field
Matteo Paganelli
GOP State Sen. Stephen West of Paris sponsored last year's successful medical marijuana legislation. Now he's sponsoring legislation to expand the list of eligible conditions needed to access it.

The Republican sponsor of a bill to legalize medical cannabis in Kentucky last year has filed a new bill to expand the number of eligible medical conditions for patients when the program goes into effect in 2025.

State Sen. Stephen West of Paris filed Senate Bill 337 last week to increase the eligible conditions from six to 21, closely resembling the recommendations of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and two committees who studied the issue.

West said he has worked on the bill since the 2023 session in collaboration with Sam Flynn, the executive director of the new Kentucky Medical Cannabis Program under the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

“They were working in conjunction with us,” West said. “We had multiple meetings during the interim. It's with our blessing. I mean, it's kind of a joint effort.”

West’s bill is seen as a positive development among patient advocates and businesses looking to potentially invest in Kentucky’s new system, but still has to gain support among a GOP caucus that was divided on legalization last year.

Senate Bill 47 of West in the 2023 session created the legal framework for medical cannabis in the state, with patients only eligible if they have been diagnosed with cancer, severe pain, epilepsy or other seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis or muscle spasms, chronic nausea or post-traumatic stress disorder.

His new bill would add more than a dozen conditions to that list, including:

  • HIV and AIDS
  • ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cachexia or wasting syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Glaucoma
  • Hepatitis C
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Neuropathies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Any terminal illness

These same conditions were recommended to be added to the law in January by the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Workgroup, which was created by Beshear to study the issue. The Board of Physicians and Advisors — a group of nine doctors and nurses created by SB 47 — also recommended adding all of the same conditions but Hepatitis C.
In a January press conference, Beshear said adding these medical conditions to the law would increase the number of eligible Kentuckians by 437,000. However, he noted that only the legislature had the authority to add them to the law, as a University of Kentucky medical group authorized to add conditions has indicated it will not do so.

While West said he agrees with adding nearly all of these conditions to the law, he noted there could be GOP legislators who supported the bill last year that object to some of them. In order to ensure the passage of SB 337, he said the bill would likely be amended once it reaches committee to remove some of them.

“To me, those (conditions) all seem reasonable,” West said. “But my view, my version of reasonable may be different than the other members.”

While SB 47 passed by a large margin in both chambers last year, the vote was much closer among members of the Republican supermajority. Legislation typically does not advance through a Kentucky General Assembly chamber unless it has support among a majority of the GOP caucus.

As it currently stands, Kentucky has one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country in terms of the small number of eligible medical conditions. While the law doesn’t have a strict cap on the number of businesses that can be licensed as growers, processors or dispensaries like some states, it does ban smoking cannabis and limits growing to secure, indoor facilities.

West filed his latest medical marijuana bill on the final day to file Senate legislation in the 2023 session. Another medical cannabis bill was filed two days earlier on the final day to file legislation in the House by another Republican who has pushed for legalization for years.

GOP Rep. Jason Nemes of Middletown filed House Bill 829 last Monday, which does not change any of the eligible medical conditions. Instead, it adds several sections to allow K-12 school districts to opt of allowing student patients to take doses at school and requires the state to create an “adverse drug effects reporting system” that patients at dispensaries must be informed of in new mandatory pamphlets.

Shortly before West filed his bill Wednesday, Nemes told Kentucky Public Radio that his bill doesn’t add any eligible medical conditions because the ones included in SB 47 “were negotiated over a long period of time and hotly debated” in order to gain enough GOP support for passage.

Nemes added that he doubted West’s bill would add medical conditions and that he had not had any conversations with the Beshear administration on his bill.

West’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Health Services committee, which is chaired by Sen. Stephen Meredith, a GOP co-sponsor of SB 47 last year. Of the 11 members of the committee, six voted for SB 47 and one member is new.

Adding conditions could expand options for patients, business

The filing of West’s bill to significantly expand the number of eligible medical conditions for medical marijuana was a pleasant surprise to Julie Cantwell, the co-founder and president of Kentucky Moms for Medical Cannabis and a member of the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Workgroup.

“I was thrilled when I found out,” Cantwell said. “I think it has the ability to help a whole lot more sick Kentuckians and I love that. I don't think we need more restrictions, I think we need less restrictions.”

Cantwell said the workgroup received a large amount of feedback from Kentickians who may not be eligible for medical cannabis unless more medical conditions were added, including diseases like Crohn’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

A Senate committee that passed SB 47 late in the 2023 session received emotional testimony from Kentuckians who needed to use cannabis for relief and did not want to be treated as criminals for doing so, including Sandra Marlowe of Lexington, who had ALS.

Marlowe, who had lost the ability to speak, shared her testimony through her computer’s voice function.

"This disease will take my life," Marlowe said. "I ask that my days be as comfortable as possible with access to the THC... that is the only thing that gives me relief."

Marlowe died later that year, in November.

If passed into law in a similar form, this would also significantly expand the number of potential patients buying medical cannabis — a market expansion favorable to businesses currently weighing whether or not to invest in Kentucky’s new system.

Paula Savchenko, an attorney with Cannacore Group and PS Law Group that has advised several businesses considering this option, says the changes proposed in SB 337 would be an added incentive to invest in Kentucky.

“This is definitely a win for both patients, as well as all businesses involved in the cannabis industry, as well as the ancillary businesses,” Savchenko said.

Jim Higdon, the Kentucky-based co-founder of Cornbread Hemp that currently sells CBD products, is one of the business owners looking at the potential of getting involved in Kentucky’s new medical cannabis market.

While there are some factors that would make Kentucky challenging for businesses to invest — such as the no-smoke provision and prohibiting outdoor growing — Higdon says West’s bill expanding conditions would be “not just a step in the right direction on a policy level, but also a sign that there's some bipartisan effort to work together to make a better program, despite the temptation of using this as a political weapon.”

Nemes and West both said adding conditions would obviously help businesses with a larger customer base, but what should drive the debate should be what the science says about helping patients.

“If it's appropriate that the market expands because that's what the science tells us, then we'll do that — increase conditions,” Nemes said. “But if it doesn't, then we won't. We're not going to do it just to give them more customers.”

West said that even if the legislature decides not to add medical conditions to the bill, he’s confident that plenty of businesses will invest in Kentucky.

“I think there will be more than enough investment and grow to provide product all across the state,” West said. “So I'm not too concerned with the product being there.”

The state can begin issuing licensing in January of 2025. Businesses are still waiting on a second round of regulations from the administration laying out the specifics on that process. Those are expected to be released before July.

Democratic legislators have also filed other cannabis bills this session, including ones to legalize recreational marijuana use and to add eligible conditions to the current medical cannabis law, though these are considered unlikely to move in the GOP-dominated chambers.

Brice Mitchell, the spokesman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said in an email that the administration supports the current version of SB 337, adding that “the Kentucky Medical Cannabis Program had several months of productive conversations with Senator West regarding needed legislation.”

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.
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