Kentucky Takes First Step Toward Legal Recreational Cannabis

December 1, 2021


A Democratic lawmaker in Kentucky on Monday took the first legislative steps toward legalizing cannabis in the Bluegrass State.

State Rep. Nima Kulkarni, who represents Louisville, prefiled a pair of bills that would upend the way cannabis consumers are treated there.

The first bill would “would amend the state’s constitution, permitting Kentuckians 21 and older to possess, use, buy or sell up to one ounce of cannabis without criminal penalty. Kentuckians would also be allowed to have up to five plants for personal use,” local television station LEX 18 reported.

The other would “would have the legislature eliminate criminal penalties for possessing, cultivating, and/or selling small amounts of cannabis,” the station explained, and “would also remove cannabis accessories from the state’s drug-paraphernalia statutes.”

“I am sponsoring these bills for several reasons, any one of which should be enough for them to become law,” Kulkarni said in a statement that was reported on by local TV station WLKY. “First, current cannabis statutes have needlessly and tragically ruined many lives, especially people of color who have suffered because of unequal enforcement. Second, thousands of citizens, from cancer patients to veterans suffering from PTSD, should have the right to use something that gives them the mental and physical relief they deserve without relying on stronger, potentially addictive medicine. Third, cannabis de-criminalization would give the state a much-needed source of reliable revenue without raising current taxes a single cent. And, finally, polls have repeatedly shown a majority of Kentuckians backs de-criminalization and allowing cannabis to be used responsibly by adults.”

LEX 18 reported that Kulkarni’s proposed constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis “would need to be approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate during the upcoming 2022 legislative session, before going in front of voters next November.”

The state’s legislative session is scheduled to begin in January.

A poll last year found that 59 percent of Kentuckians are in favor of legalizing cannabis—a whopping 20-point spike in merely seven years.           

But that doesn’t mean that Kulkarni’s two bills are a sure-thing, particularly given the general assembly’s recent history.

The state’s House of Representatives passed a bill in February 2020 legalizing medical cannabis treatment, but the legislation fizzled out after the COVID-19 pandemic brought business to a standstill.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, urged lawmakers late last year to renew their efforts to get the bill over the line. As a gubernatorial candidate in 2019, Beshear had spoken out against harsh penalties, including prison time, for cannabis consumers.

Kulkarni’s moves on Monday harken back to former Democratic Kentucky Rep. Cluster Howard, who in 2019 also prefiled a bill that would have legalized marijuana use for adults aged 21 and older and decriminalized marijuana possession of less than an ounce. Howard’s bill also would have created a regulated market for the sale of cannabis.

“Other states have shown that legalizing cannabis for adult use is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” Howard said at the time. “It’s a major revenue generator. It frees up critical jail and prison space. It helps counteract the deadly opioid epidemic. And it gives farmers a major new cash crop. The longer we wait, the more we miss out on these benefits.”

There were more than 20,000 arrests for possession and sale of cannabis in Kentucky between 2014 and 2016.

The ACLU said last year that Black Kentuckians “are 9.4 times more likely than white Kentuckians to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite both groups having similar national marijuana use rates,” a rate that “is second only to Montana, where Black people are 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than white people.”

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The Bluegrass State of Kentucky could be the next to legalize recreational cannabis, via a pair of bills filed on Monday.
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