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Medical Marijuana Legalization in Kentucky

Renee Shaw and guests discuss legislation introduced to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky. Guests: Jaime Montalvo, founder of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana; Danesh Mazloomdoost, M.D., an anesthesiologist and degenerative specialist; Ed Shemelya, national coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative; and State Senator Phillip Wheeler (R-Pikeville).
Season 29 Episode 44 Length 56:33 Premiere: 01/30/23


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Legislators, Physicians, and Advocates Discuss Proposed Legislation in the General Assembly to Legalize Medicinal Cannabis Use

Medical marijuana advocates hope that 2023 is the year that Kentucky joins some three dozen other states in legalizing the use of cannabis to help treat certain ailments.

But they also thought that might happen in 2020 and 2022, when the Kentucky House of Representatives passed medicinal marijuana legislation on a bipartisan basis only to see those bills stall in the state Senate without ever getting a vote.

Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville), who sponsored the previous House bills, wants Senate members to take the lead on the issue this year. Republican Senators Stephen West of Paris and Phillip Wheeler of Pikeville are doing just that with their Senate Bill 47, which they hope can succeed where the previous measures have failed.

“I am optimistic that this may be the year that you see some action on it in the Senate,” says Wheeler. “We have several new members, some of whom seem to be more open to the idea of medical cannabis.”

SB 47 establishes strict protocols for producing and dispensing medical marijuana products in Kentucky, and requires patients to register with the state and be certified to use medicinal cannabis by a doctor with whom they have a “bona fide practitioner-patient relationship.”

“The purpose of Senate Bill 47... is to in fact give people a safe marketplace in which to obtain these products,” says Wheeler, “one where they know [where] it’s coming from, that it’s not contaminated by some other potential substance that could be deadly.”

Unlike the previous House measures, SB 47 does not list specific medical conditions a patient must have before being eligible to legally obtain and use marijuana products.

“I believe Senate Bill 47 is actually narrow enough and tight enough to regulate the market to make sure folks get a safe product,” says Wheeler. “At the same time, it’s flexible enough to where pharmacists and doctors can actually implement the proposed regime.”

The legislation states the marijuana products cannot be smoked, but could be consumed in other forms. The medical cannabis program would be administered not by state health officials but by the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which would go by the new name of Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control.

“The ABC is more set up to enforce the legislation,” says Jaime Montalvo, founder of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana. “The ABC has more enforcement agents across the state, which can then go to the license holders, say the dispensary or the cultivation facility, to make sure that they’re abiding by the rules and the regulations.”

Lack of Long-Term Scientific Research Still a Hindrance

Because legal cannabis use for legitimate medicinal purposes is still relatively new, research data on prescribing if for specific conditions remains limited. To help address that, SB 47 creates a state Board of Physicians and Advisors charged with recommending patient dosages and supply amounts.

“I want to keep the prescription practices as narrow as possible for these types of substances,” says Wheeler.

But opponents of medical marijuana say that lack of research is precisely why legalizing its use is premature.

“It has medicinal properties, but to call it medicine is a little bit of a misnomer,” says Dr. Danesh Mazloomdoost, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist in Lexington. “We don’t have the science to come with the medical scrutiny and say this is indeed effective for this kind of condition or it’s not. That creates an unintended consequence of harm in that people have a false sense of security.”

Since marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under United States Drug Enforcement Administration rules, large-scale medical research projects into cannabis are limited and require stringent federal controls. (Schedule 1 status means the substance has no currently approved medical use and has a high potential for abuse.) Without that research, Mazloomdoost says doctors have no way of knowing the effects of using marijuana or its compounds, how those compounds actually work in the body, what dosing would be safe and effective, and what complications long-term use might pose.

While advocates cite anecdotal stories about the relief marijuana provides individuals suffering from epileptic seizures, cancer patients battling nausea, or people with chronic pain or post-traumatic stress, Mazloomdoost says that’s no replacement for scientific data.

“It’s very easy to get swayed by the emotional component of stories like that,” he says.

Mazloomdoost also questions claims that medical marijuana will help decrease the incidence of opioid addiction. He says there’s no research to indicate that cannabinoids influence the physiological processes that lead to addiction, much less the social and psychological issues that can contribute to substance abuse. He admits marijuana is less potentially deadly than opioids but he says we simply don’t know whether it’s safer for long-term use for pain control.

“When opioid dependency or addiction forms, endocannabinoids don’t reverse that process,” he says. “The thought that you can replace marijuana in the opioid epidemic and you’re not going to see adverse, unintended consequences from that is misguided.”

Some law enforcement officials also want more scientific data, according to the National Marijuana Initiative’s Ed Shemelya, who represents the Kentucky Narcotics Officers Association. He says President Joe Biden signed legislation last year that would specifically expand research into marijuana compounds and their potential medicinal values. Shemelya contends it would be misguided for state lawmakers to act before that data becomes available.

“There are so many myths about this drug that need to be put to scrutiny with science,” says Shemelya. “I question whether the legislature really understands what they’re trying to enact with respect to this piece of legislation... They’re placing themselves above scientists that are doing research.”

Without more data, Montalvo says he understands why some doctors are reluctant to recommend medical cannabis use. He says some patients currently fear even asking their doctors about medicinal use because it is illegal. He also argues that people shouldn’t be prevented from having legal access to authorized medicinal products, especially when it’s already so easy to acquire recreational marijuana even in places where it's outlawed.

“It is here, so we as patients are asking for it to be regulated so that we can a safe product to consume or to test on ourselves,” says Montalvo. “It is a choice by a patient to consume cannabis.”

If patients want to use medicinal marijuana even without a doctor’s recommendation or supervision, then Mazloomdoost says why not remove medical professionals from the entire process.

“If it’s so safe and it’s so effective, then take physicians out of it and label it just as you would nicotine or alcohol and let people make the decision for themselves,” says Mazloomdoost.

Gov. Beshear’s Action on Medical Marijuana

While the legislative debate continues, Gov. Andy Beshear took his own action on the matter. In November, he issued an executive order that would pardon any person facing criminal charges for possession of marijuana if the individual has a written certification from a physician for medicinal cannabis use for one of 21 specific ailments, if the product was lawfully purchased in a state where marijuana is legal, and if the patient possesses no more than 8 ounces.

“Allowing Kentuckians diagnosed with certain medical conditions and receiving palliative care to purchase, possess, and/or use medical cannabis would improve the quality of their lives,” Beshear wrote in his order.

While the governor’s action was praised by some, it also drew criticism from both supporters and opponents of medical marijuana. Sen. Wheeler says he shares Beshear’s compassion for patients, but he argues that governors should leave policymaking to the legislative branch. He also questions how the order proactively pardons people for a crime.

“That’s a pretty slippery slope, giving a prospective pardon to behavior that you may think is OK but is technically against the law in Kentucky,” says Wheeler.

Montalvo says he fears the order will be confusing to people who think that it’s now legal for them to possess medicinal products in Kentucky. He also says unscrupulous online doctors are already lining up to provide certifications for use to patients.

“The sharks are swimming and there’s a lot of blood in the water – they’re very excited about it,” says Montalvo. “I fear that the executive order was well intentioned but will lead to many more problems.”

Besides legislative inaction, Beshear pointed to polling that indicates some 90 percent of Kentuckians approve of legalizing medical cannabis. Shemelya doubts the support is actually that strong, pointing out that some people would not tell a pollster they disapprove of helping someone who is terminally ill. He also questions why Beshear, who wants Kentuckians to follow the science on COVID-19 protocols, has now changed his tune.

“You can’t cherry-pick when you want to follow science and when you want to ignore science,” says Shemelya.

Whether through executive order or legislative action, Shemelya says the push for medical marijuana will ultimately lead to legalizing recreational marijuana. He contends there simply aren’t enough potential medicinal-use patients to support a system of growers and dispensaries, so they will soon advocate for full legalization. He also says activists have already normalized cannabis use of any kind to dangerous levels.

“We have got this to the point where our young people don’t see anything wrong with this,” says Shemelya. “Matter of fact they actually think it’s safer than alcohol.”

So far, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron has not challenged the governor’s medical marijuana order (Cameron, a Republican, is running to oppose Beshear, a Democrat, in this year’s race for governor.)

The General Assembly returns on Feb. 7, and lawmakers could take up Senate Bill 47 then. But the measure faces an uphill battle: Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) says he continues to be concerned about adverse consequences of medical marijuana use, including potential abuse of the products. Senate Majority Floor Leader Thayer says he is opposed to medical marijuana, though he adds he won’t stand in the way of passage if there are enough votes in the chamber to approve it.

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Season 29 Episodes

Medical Marijuana Legalization in Kentucky

S29 E44 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/30/23

Kentucky's Juvenile Justice System

S29 E43 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/23/23

Legislation Introduced in the 2023 General Assembly

S29 E42 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/09/23

2023 Legislative Session Preview

S29 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/19/22

National Politics

S29 E40 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/05/22

2022 Election Preview

S29 E39 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/07/22

Inflation and the Economy

S29 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/31/22

Constitutional Amendments 1 & 2

S29 E37 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 10/24/22

Candidates for U.S. House of Representatives: Part Two

S29 E36 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 10/17/22

Candidates for U.S. House of Representatives: Part One

S29 E35 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/10/22

U.S. Senate Candidate Charles Booker

S29 E34 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 10/03/22

Discussing Flooding's Impact on Eastern Kentucky Schools

S29 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/26/22

COVID-19, Monkeypox and Influenza

S29 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/12/22

Eastern Kentucky Flooding and Legislative Relief Package

S29 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/29/22

Child Care in Kentucky

S29 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/22/22

School Safety: Debating State Policies

S29 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/01/22

Work, Wages and Welfare

S29 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/25/22

50 Years of Title IX

S29 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/18/22

The Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

S29 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/11/22

Kentucky's Ban on Abortion

S29 E23 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/27/22

Discussing New Developments in the COVID-19 Pandemic

S29 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/20/22

Reducing Opioid Addiction Rates in Kentucky

S29 E21 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 06/13/22

Mass Shootings and Gun Laws

S29 E20 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/06/22

Discussing the Rise in Gas Prices and Inflation

S29 E19 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/23/22

Previewing Kentucky's 2022 Primary Election

S29 E18 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/16/22

Third Congressional District Democratic Primary

S29 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/09/22

Candidates in the 2022 Primary Election: Part Two

S29 E16 Length 58:33 Premiere Date 05/02/22

Candidates in the 2022 Primary Election: Part One

S29 E15 Length 58:40 Premiere Date 04/25/22

Lawmakers Review the 2022 General Assembly

S29 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/18/22

Recap of the 2022 Legislative Session

S29 E13 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 04/11/22

Public Assistance and Jobless Benefits

S29 E12 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/28/22

Abortion Legislation in the 2022 General Assembly

S29 E11 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/21/22

State Budget, Taxes, and Other 2022 General Assembly Topics

S29 E10 Length 57:42 Premiere Date 03/14/22

Critical Race Theory and Approaches to Teaching History

S29 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/28/22

2022 Legislative Session at the Midpoint

S29 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/21/22

Name, Image and Likeness Compensation

S29 E7 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/14/22

Child Abuse and Neglect

S29 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/07/22

Debating School Choice in Kentucky

S29 E5 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 02/01/22

Debating Provisions in the Proposed State Budget

S29 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/24/22

Redistricting, State Budget, and Other Legislative Issues

S29 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/10/22

Discussing Legislative Goals for the 2022 General Assembly

S29 E2 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/03/22

Previewing the 2022 Kentucky General Assembly

S29 E1 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 12/06/21

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Renee Shaw hosts a 2024 legislative session preview. Scheduled guests: State Representative Chad Aull (D-Lexington); State Representative Stephanie Dietz (R-Edgewood); State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville); and State Senator Amanda Mays Bledsoe (R- Lexington). A 2023 KET production.

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2023 Election - S30 E31

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