House Bill 136 sponsors Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, (left) and Rep. John Sims Jr., D-Flemingsburg, after its passage in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday night | Photo via LRC Public Information

After many different failed attempts over the past decade, a state House committee finally held a vote on a bill Wednesday night to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky, which overwhelmingly passed by a 16 to 1 vote.

Despite the successful vote in the House Judiciary Committee, House Bill 136 still appears a long shot to gain final passage into law during the current session of the Kentucky General Assembly, as it needs to be passed by the full House and then the Senate with only five legislative days remaining.

House Bill 136 would create a system regulated by the state in which marijuana could be grown, processed, dispensed and prescribed by doctors to individuals with certain ailments, such as chronic pain, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, nausea and Crohn’s disease.

To gather the support needed to pass HB 136, its lead sponsors — Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, and Rep. Diane St. Onge, Ft. Wright — made concessions to amend the bill, which now prohibits patients from smoking the marijuana and growing up to 12 of the plants at home, in addition to limiting the THC content of processed oil and edible marijuana to 70 percent.

St. Onge noted that among the 33 states that had legalized medical marijuana, if passed into law this bill would be the most restrictive, adding that employers would still be able to have drug-free workplace policies and testing, even if an employee had a prescription.

Despite such legislation going nowhere over the past decade, polling in recent years has shown that medical marijuana is supported by a large majority of Kentuckians, perhaps evidenced by the fact that HB 136 is co-sponsored by 43 representatives in that chamber.

Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, who voted for the bill, noted in the committee meeting that 99 percent of constituents who have provided feedback on the issue have indicated their support for medical marijuana.

Testifying against the bill was the University of Louisville pain specialist Dr. James Murphy, who said that marijuana has not yet been sufficiently researched and “we don’t approve of medications based on popularity polls, we do it based upon science.”

Eric Crawford, a quadriplegic man who has been a leading advocate for medical marijuana in Frankfort over the past decade, testified that he and many others already use the drug to successfully manage pain instead of opioids, decrying that “I am viewed as a criminal in the state that I love.”

Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, noted how the opioid epidemic has ravaged her community over the past decade and said that marijuana could be a safer alternative than prescription painkillers, as “it’s not physically addictive, it’s been around for 5,000 years, it’s legal in 33 states and I’m aware of no deaths that have been reported.”

Democratic Louisville Reps. Charles Booker and Reginald Meeks both voted for the bill but expressed their disappointment that there were no additional provisions in the bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana.

The only vote against HB 136 in committee was Rep. Brandon Reed, R-Hodgenville, while Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, passed and Rep. Kim Moser, R-Independence, did not vote.

The full House could vote to approve HB 136 as early as next week, but that would leave very little time for the Senate to pick up the legislation and pass it, where the Republican leadership has expressed skepticism about medical marijuana. Because the bill would affect the budget in an odd-numbered year, it would also have to be passed by 60 percent of each chamber.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]