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Kentucky lawmakers expedite medical marijuana licensing, pass on extra conditions

A medical marijuana growing operation
Richard T
/
Unsplash
It's increasingly likely that cannabis will be available for patients at Kentucky dispensaries Jan. 2025.

The new law would allow Kentucky to issue medical cannabis licenses to businesses as early as this summer, increasing the odds that cannabis will be available for patients at dispensaries beginning 2025.

Kentucky patients seeking to receive medical marijuana may be able to do so very early in 2025, helped in part by the passage of a bill Monday to move up the licensing timeline for the state’s new program.

The state’s medical cannabis program was created by Senate Bill 47 in 2023 and is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2025. However, under the terms of SB 47, cannabis growers cannot begin planting seeds until they are licensed that year, meaning dispensaries would likely not have any marijuana to sell to patients until the spring or summer.

Under the final version of House Bill 829 passed Monday, this timeline is moved up to allow businesses applying to be cannabis growers, processors or dispensaries to be approved for a license as early as this summer. The bill passed by a large bipartisan majority in each chamber, with only Republicans voting against it.

Republican Sen. Stephen West of Paris — the lead author of SB 47 last year — told committee members Friday this move was to ensure there was enough time to grow and process cannabis so patients could buy medication on the first available day when it became legal.

“It does allow these businesses — the growers especially — to get up and running, start growing product so there's actually something there to sell January 1,” West said.

At the urging of groups like the Kentucky League of Cities, HB 829 also included a provision to preserve the authority of local governments to preemptively opt out of Kentucky’s medical cannabis program.

The original bill from 2023 allowed city and county governments to opt out in 2024 before businesses could be licensed in their jurisdictions in 2025. However, if the local government took no action in 2024, businesses receiving a license in 2025 would be grandfathered in and could not have their license taken away if the city or county later moved to disallow medical marijuana there.

Under HB 829, businesses would now be allowed to receive a cannabis license in 2024, but city and county governments could still opt out of the programs by the end of the year through an ordinance or voter referendum, voiding that license. This ability to void a license with a subsequent opt out from local governments would expire in 2025.

West said Friday that while cannabis licensees can now get an earlier start on investing capital to acquire buildings and start growing, doing so in 2024 without fully gauging the support of local government officials would be “a bad business decision.”

“Everyone should know, if you get licensed and get set up before [2025], you're taking a bit of a risk,” West said.

Businesses can’t apply for licenses until the Kentucky Medical Cannabis Program under the Cabinet for Health and Family Services releases their final regulations on licensing applications. These regulations are expected to come before July and will be followed by a three-month public comment period.

West and GOP Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, the lead sponsor of HB 829, told committee members HB 829 now prioritizes licensees who are based in Kentucky and are already hemp growers in good standing with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

While not guaranteeing their applications would be approved, Nemes said this provision would move those growers “to the front of the line” in the application process, with West saying this was added to help Kentucky farmers.

However, HB 829 has a strict prohibition on medical cannabis being grown outdoors, as it can only be grown in large and secure indoor facilities. West said he was not sure how many licensed hemp growers use indoor facilities.

“This is not like hemp,” West said. “This is like pharmaceutical grade marijuana, this is not out in the field. A Kentucky farmer or Kentucky individual can do it, but they will still need to invest in the infrastructure.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, 99.85% of the hemp grown in Kentucky last year was outdoors, with only 0.15% of the harvest grown indoors. Doris Hamilton, the manager of the department’s hemp program, added that “all of the hemp grown for the harvest of the flower is started indoors (from seed or cuttings) and then transplanted in the field at 6 to 10 inches tall, similar to tobacco production.”

The bill also maintains a strict prohibition against smoking medical marijuana, as it could only be consumed through vaping, pills and edibles. The bill also adds a new provision to prohibit vaping medical cannabis in public.

“I want to be really clear: If you're smoking, you will lose your license, your card and you will go to jail,” Nemes told lawmakers Friday. “You should go to jail until the law changes, and I wouldn't support a change in the law on that.”

Despite West sponsoring another bill this session to increase the number of medical conditions that would make a patient eligible to buy medical cannabis from six to 20, the final version of HB 829 did not expand them. Patients will only be eligible for medical cannabis 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.

Nemes said the number of conditions were kept lower than most states in order to get enough votes for the bill to pass last year, adding it would not be right to add eligible conditions “before the program even starts.”

Last year, the Board of Physicians and Advisers — a new state body of doctors and nurses created by SB 47 with members appointed by medical licensing and nursing boards — recommended expanding this list of eligible conditions to 20, including Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and any terminal illness.

This same board is also responsible for any state appropriations being allowed to go to the new Office of Medical Cannabis that oversees the programs, per language in the new state budget that is now law.

The budget bill stated such funds could only be allowed when the board “finds there is a propensity of peer-reviewed, published research with sufficient evidence as to the efficacy of medical cannabis for the persistent reduction of symptoms of diseases and conditions.” A previous version of the budget had much stricter language that advocates believed would have likely defunded the medical cannabis office before it even started.

Seven of the nine current members of the Board of Physicians and Advisers were confirmed by the state Senate Monday evening, hours before the session ended.

A previous version of HB 829 would have required medical cannabis patients to first get approval from a pharmacist before they could purchase cannabis at a dispensary, but this was stripped from the final version of the bill. Instead, the bill added one pharmacist member to the Board of Physicians and Advisers that is appointed by the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy.

This story has been updated.

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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