Governor Matt Bevin | Photo by Melissa Chipman

A Republican state senator is advocating that Kentucky legalize and regulate marijuana to create millions of dollars in tax revenue — citing Colorado’s example — which could be used to address the state’s public pension crisis. However, in a radio interview this week, Gov. Matt Bevin also cited the example of Colorado to argue why Kentucky should not follow suit, claiming that state’s emergency rooms are being overrun by patients who have overdosed on marijuana.

Last week, Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, announced that he supported the legalization of marijuana in Kentucky to help the state’s troubled public pension plans — which have a total unfunded liability of roughly $30 billion — citing the $100 million in annual tax revenue that Colorado has been able to produce.

But when asked by WHAS radio host Terry Meiners in an interview on Tuesday if he favored legislation to legalize marijuana or expanded gaming to create more revenue for pensions, Bevin said those options were off the table.

“So, a lot of toked-up people gambling, that’s the solution for Kentucky?” replied Bevin. “I would say no and no. Not while I’m governor. Those are sucker’s bets. We’re not going to legalize marijuana in this state.”

Noting that proponents of legalizing and taxing marijuana hold up Colorado as a successful model that brought in over $100 million of revenue, Bevin suggested that the governor, legislators and law enforcement of that state knew the public health and safety costs of legalization would outweigh any economic benefits to Colorado.

“THC content in marijuana is not like it was even a generation ago,” said Bevin. “There are people overdosing based on ingestion of products that are edibles and things. You have that state being sued by at least two of their border states. You have law enforcement people in emergency rooms being overrun by problems. You have homelessness spiking in that state. It has not been good for that state, and states like us would be wise to look at that and realize that’s a sucker’s bet.”

Asked about Bevin’s description of how Colorado’s legalization of marijuana in 2014 has affected the state, Dr. Daniel Vigil, who manages the Marijuana Health Monitoring and Research Program at the Colorado Department of Public Health, told IL in a lengthy statement that Colorado’s government had adapted and refined its regulations to overcome some of the early challenges it faced.

“What Mr. Bevin may be referring to is an increase in calls to the poison center and visits to emergency departments related to marijuana,” said Vigil, adding that “these are not overdoses comparable to an opioid overdose, and a better term is overconsumption.”

According to the 2017 resource guide of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice, “no deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported” in the United States.

Vigil stated that most overconsumption cases involved the intentional ingestion of cannabis with a stronger effect than intended, though there are also some cases of unintentional ingestion by people who did not know an item contained THC, both of which are more likely to occur with edibles. However, poison center calls for adults are evenly split between smokeable and edible marijuana.

While there was an increase in calls to the poison center and visits to the emergency room in the first year or two after legalization related to the overconsumption or unintentional consumption of marijuana, Vigil said the state reacted with new regulations and policies and had now reversed that trend.

“Colorado has implemented new legislation (including serving size limits on edibles, labeling and universal symbol requirements, and childproof packaging) and included in our public education cautions about the delayed effects of edibles,” stated Vigil. “In the most recent year of data for both poison center calls and emergency visits, we saw a decline from the previous year.”

Vigil added that there have been “rare deaths” related to marijuana in Colorado, including “one following overconsumption, paranoia and falling off a balcony, and another involving unintentional ingestion of a large dose of THC in a candy bar with an apparent cardiac death.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper

While Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper originally called the legalization of marijuana in his state “reckless” and “risky” — as it was passed in a statewide voter referendum, which he opposed — he has increasingly warmed up to the policy as his administration adapted with new regulations.

In July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated in a letter to Hickenlooper that he had serious questions about Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, citing rising out-of-state diversion, use by youths, emergency-room visits and traffic deaths. In his August letter replying to Sessions — which was co-signed by Colorado’s Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman — Hickenlooper rebutted each point with statistics, crediting new legislation and regulations that addressed the state’s initial growing pains with legalization.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, stated in the letter that marijuana-related emergency room visits decreased by 27 percent in 2015 and poison control calls decreased by 12 percent last year. He also noted that while the 2016 study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area — cited by Sessions — found increased marijuana-related traffic fatalities, it chose to exclude that finding in its 2017 report due to incomplete data.

Additionally, Hickenlooper cited multiple studies showing that legalization had not led to the increase in marijuana use by Colorado youths, noting that the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found such use actually decreased by 12 percent between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016.

The letter by Hickenlooper and Coffman concluded by stating that “Colorado’s system has become a model for other states and nations.”

Last month, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the legality of Kentucky’s ban on medical marijuana. While running for governor in 2015, Bevin’s campaign spokesman told IL that he would sign whichever kind of medical marijuana bill passes the state legislature, “but this will not be a priority of his administration.”

Bevin is expected to call a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly this fall to consider legislation to address Kentucky’s public pension crisis, though, the details of such legislation have not been shared publicly.

Both Hickenlooper and Bevin have been named by political analysts as potential contenders for their respective parties’ in the 2020 presidential election.

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