Gregory A. Hall, email@example.com 11:39 a.m. EST December 26, 2014
FRANKFORT, Ky. – House Speaker Greg Stumbo says he will file a bill in the upcoming General Assembly session to allow medical marijuana though he concedes its chances are uncertain.
The outright opposition to medical marijuana once seen among legislators has softened, though many still don’t seem comfortable enough with the policy shift to commit to voting for it.
"I think it’s going to get some play this session; I don’t know how much," the Prestonsburg Democrat said.
Medical marijuana once was a fringe issue with no chance, but other states’ approvals have brought it increasingly into the mainstream and, in recent years and months, the issue has received no shortage of attention in Kentucky.
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Kentuckians expressed support for medical marijuana in Bluegrass Polls the last two years. Legislators unanimously approved a bill in the last session that allows marijuana oil to be used to treat seizures. Two bills to allow broader medical marijuana use died, including a House bill that was voted out of its Health and Welfare Committee before being sent to the Judiciary Committee where it died.
Since then, the issue has been discussed in at least three hearings by a legislative committee.
At one of those in November, Jaime Montalvo, the founder and president of Kentuckians for Medical Marijuana, told the Joint Licensing and Occupations committee about the need for a law that would let him treat his multiple sclerosis as people in 23 states and the District of Columbia, where the plant can be used medically.
"This is for people who are really sick and need safe access to something that has been found to be therapeutically effective in treating their pain or other issues," he said.
Stumbo said he’s moved by the stories of people in his own district.
"I think it’s one of those issues … that the more people learn about it, the less they fear it," Stumbo said. "… I don’t believe that this is opening the flood gates. I believe the stories of the families that I hear from because I know them. They’re reputable people."
But other legislators, while saying they’re open to the concept, cite other problems.
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said he would want any legal medical marijuana dispensed through pharmacies — if that’s even possible — rather than the "compassion centers" advocated by Montalvo’s group. Buford also suggested legislators can’t resolve the issue if the state attorney general, the Kentucky State Police or federal officials don’t cooperate.
"I don’t know that we can do much for you," Buford told Montalvo at the November hearing. "I’m not opposed to what you want to do, but I think you’ve got … bigger minds to change than ours to move forward in this situation."
Montalvo and other supporters of medicinal use of the plant say it can treat a range of ailments or their symptoms — including cancer-related nausea, pain and glaucoma — without the side effects of existing medications.
One of the uses is for post-traumatic stress disorder, although clinical and psychiatric experts from the Louisville Veterans Affairs Medical Center cautioned lawmakers in July over a lack of controlled drug trials and clinical evidence for treating PTSD patients with marijuana — despite anecdotal evidence.
Similarly, critics of medical marijuana say generally that medical use is not supported by scientific evidence and ultimately leads to recreational abuse and illegal trafficking under the guise of medicine.
But Montalvo cites a study published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine publication that found increases in opioid deaths were about 25 percent less than expected in states with legal medical marijuana than states where it’s illegal.
Four states allow recreational use.
Almost a dozen have passed legislation for marijuana oil, also known as CBD, although narcotics laws have rendered ineffective most of those — including Kentucky’s, Montalvo said.
The system endorsed by Montalvo’s group would establish a regulated three-tier system, similar to the alcoholic beverage system that prevents one group from having too much control, that separates users, distributors and growers.
"There is a accountability at every angle," he said.
Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, said he’s sympathetic to the cause but might have an easier time supporting a narrower bill that, for example, only allowed digestible forms of marijuana. He also said he’s concerned that some of the conditions eligible for treatment could be faked to get marijuana.
Stumbo’s concept would require a prescription, reporting to a database for law enforcement that tracks narcotic prescriptions and any participating physician to go through a certification course. He doesn’t believe the federal government would stand in the way — given the fact it hasn’t intervened in other states.
Besides Stumbo’s expected bill, Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, has filed a bill for the upcoming session to allow medical marijuana use as he has the last three years. Clark has said repeatedly that he believes science supports his position that marijuana is medicine but his medical marijuana bills have never moved in the Republican-majority Senate.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he’d like to see scientific studies that show medical marijuana has a definite medical value.
"I want something that is research-based that says there is therapeutic value," he said.
Stivers said no Republican member has said they want to vote on medical marijuana.
The marijuana oil measure passed because it had empirical evidence of therapeutic impact, Stivers said, "and until that happens (with medical marijuana) in a similar vein, I can’t see me or the Senate taking it up."
The greatest chance for success would be in the Democratic-majority House, where its Health and Welfare Committee approved the bill last year.
The chairman of that committee, Rep. Tom Burch, D-Buechel, reiterated his support at the November Licensing and Occupations meeting.
"I think this is something that has passed in so many states now that Kentucky has really got to move ahead, do it and take care of people who actually need this particular drug," Burch said. "It does do the job. So I hope that we would look favorably this time on that legislation because I think it’s necessary, and I think it’ll give a lot of help to people who really need it."
Whether it’s the coming session, Stumbo said he believes medical marijuana will be approved in Kentucky eventually.
"Its time will come," he said, adding he doesn’t believe "anybody in the legislature would want to see somebody denied something that would help them in the circumstances that a lot of these people find themselves in."
Reporter Gregory A. Hall can be reached at (502) 582-4087. Follow him on Twitter at @gregoryahall.