FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — After years of setbacks, medical marijuana advocates cleared a historic hurdle Thursday when the Kentucky House voted to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
The measure won House passage on a 65-30 vote after an emotional debate, sending the proposal to the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans. The House vote marked the first time a medical marijuana bill passed either legislative chamber in Kentucky, supporters said.
“We have momentum but we’re not there yet,” Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, the bill's lead sponsor, told reporters after the vote.
Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters Thursday that he believes the measure has a “narrow path” to Senate passage, the Courier Journal reported. But he raised concerns about the lack of conclusive studies by federal entities such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Nemes said he assumes the Senate will consider some changes to the bill. Revisions will be acceptable, he said, as long as the bill's core goal is preserved: “And that is to provide medical marijuana for as many Kentuckians in need whose physician thinks it will help them."
During the long House debate, Nemes reassured his House colleagues that the measure would create the country's “tightest medical marijuana" program if it becomes law.
Supporters said medical cannabis would ease the suffering of many Kentuckians.
The legislation would allow doctors to prescribe cannabis and set up a regulatory framework for patients to obtain it at approved dispensaries. Smoking medical cannabis would not be permitted under the bill. It could be consumed in forms such as pills and oils.
Under the bill, a regulatory board would determine what conditions would qualify for doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients. The House amended the bill Thursday to guarantee that the approved conditions for a marijuana prescription would include chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea or vomiting.
Supporters said the time had come for Kentucky to join 33 other states where medical marijuana is already legal.
“Like any medicine, it works for some; for some others, it may not be the best thing," Democratic Rep. Al Gentry said. “But let's let the patient and their caregiver make that decision. I think they're capable of doing that."
Supporters have pointed to medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids in a state that has been ravaged by opioid-related addictions. Gentry emotionally recounted how he lost friends to opioids.
In opposing the bill, Republican Rep. Stan Lee warned that legalizing medical cannabis would be the start of efforts by marijuana advocates to further relax marijuana restrictions. He warned those efforts would culminate in a push to someday allow recreational use of marijuana.
“We're being asked to pass something that I fear will not be the end of it," he said.
Lee said it's gut wrenching to hear from medical marijuana advocates who believe that cannabis will ease their suffering. But he called it a balancing test and said there are “tears on the other side" — from families whose lives were shattered by drug addictions that started with marijuana.
“Marijuana isn't just a carefree, happy-go-lucky kind of thing you just do on a whim," Lee said. “It's a drug. And I don't think it's good for our society. I don't think it's good for our people. And I fear that's where we're going — step by step."
Supporters were mindful of those concerns when drafting the bill's strict conditions, Nemes said.
“This is not about fun," he told reporters. “This is about healing. This is about health."
After the House vote, a steadfast medical marijuana advocate in Kentucky, Eric Crawford, celebrated the vote but was mindful of an even bigger hurdle to overcome in the Senate.
During committee hearings, Crawford has told lawmakers he already uses medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids to deal with pain and muscle spasms. He suffered spinal cord injuries in a vehicle crash more than two decades ago.
“We're one more step closer," Crawford told reporters after the House vote. “This is a big day. This is history. ... Onward to the Senate."
The legislation is House Bill 136.