A Kentucky lawmaker has filed a bill that would legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older in the state, following the partial legalization of medical cannabis last year. The bill, House Bill 420, aims to create a regulated and taxed cannabis market, as well as expunge the records of people with cannabis-related misdemeanors.
The Details of the Bill
House Bill 420, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Roberts, would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to six plants for personal use. The bill would also create a system of licensed cannabis retailers, cultivators, processors, and testing facilities, overseen by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control. The bill would impose a 10% excise tax on cannabis sales, with 40% of the revenue going to the general fund, 20% to the local governments where the sales occur, 20% to the public school fund, and 20% to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System.
The bill would also provide a process for people to petition the courts to expunge their records of cannabis-related misdemeanors, without paying any fees. The bill would also prohibit employers from discriminating against employees or applicants based on their cannabis use, unless it affects their job performance or safety.
The Rationale Behind the Bill
Rep. Roberts said she filed the bill to end the prohibition of cannabis, which she said has been a failure and a waste of resources. She said cannabis legalization would generate revenue for the state, create jobs, reduce the black market, and provide relief for people suffering from various medical conditions.
She also said cannabis legalization would address the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, as people of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for cannabis offenses. She cited a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which found that Black people in Kentucky are six times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, despite similar usage rates.
Rep. Roberts said she hopes her bill will spark a conversation and a debate in the legislature, and that she is open to amendments and compromises. She said she is optimistic that the bill will receive bipartisan support, as cannabis legalization has become a mainstream issue across the country.
The Status of Cannabis in Kentucky
Kentucky is one of the few states that still prohibits both medical and recreational cannabis, although it has a limited industrial hemp program. However, the state has seen some progress in recent years, as public opinion and political will have shifted in favor of cannabis reform.
In 2020, Gov. Andy Beshear partially legalized medical cannabis by executive order, allowing people with certain medical conditions to possess and use cannabis purchased legally in other states, with a doctor’s certification and a receipt. The order also directed the state health department to study the feasibility and impact of a full medical cannabis program in Kentucky.
In 2023, the Kentucky Senate passed a bill to legalize medical cannabis, with a 26-11 vote. The bill, Senate Bill 47, would create a comprehensive medical cannabis program, with a list of qualifying conditions, a registry of patients and caregivers, and a system of licensed dispensaries and cultivators. The bill is currently pending in the House, where it has received strong support in the past.
However, the prospects of recreational cannabis legalization in Kentucky are still uncertain, as the state faces opposition from some conservative lawmakers and groups, such as the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Kentucky State Police. Some critics of the bill argue that cannabis is a harmful substance that can impair driving, increase mental health problems, and lead to addiction and abuse of other drugs.
The National Trend of Cannabis Legalization
Kentucky is not alone in considering cannabis legalization, as more and more states have embraced the reform in recent years. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have legalized recreational cannabis for adults, while 36 states, four territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis in some form. Several states, such as New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and New Mexico, have legalized cannabis in 2023, while others, such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Connecticut, are expected to follow suit soon.
Cannabis legalization has also gained momentum at the federal level, as several bills have been introduced in Congress to end the federal prohibition of cannabis, or to respect the states’ rights to regulate cannabis. In 2020, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, expunge federal cannabis convictions, and create a fund to support communities impacted by the war on drugs. However, the bill stalled in the Senate, where it faced opposition from the Republican majority. In 2023, the bill was reintroduced in both chambers, with more co-sponsors and support from the Democratic leadership.
Cannabis legalization has also received the backing of President Joe Biden, who has expressed his support for decriminalizing cannabis, expunging records, and allowing states to set their own policies. However, Biden has stopped short of endorsing full legalization, saying he wants more research on the potential harms and benefits of cannabis.