Kentucky will ring in the new year with an executive order to legalize medical marijuana in the state.  The order allows residents to use medical marijuana to treat any of the 21 conditions, provided they follow some additional rules.  The marijuana needs to be purchased from a state that legally sells it, the receipt must be kept, you must have no more than 8 ounces, and proof of the qualifying condition must be with you.  But for a state that has struggled with opioid use and deaths (overdose deaths in the state saw a 15% increase in 2021 to 2,200 deaths while the CDC continues to report zero deaths related to marijuana), this executive order is certainly a step in the right direction.

“I couldn’t sit and let another veteran end their life. I couldn’t sit and watch another person fall into addiction with opioids,” said Governor Andy Beshear, who along with his Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman, are the lone Democratic statewide elected officials .  Beshear emphasized the need for the Republican controlled legislature to follow up on his executive order with comprehensive legislation that not only permits the responsible use of cannabis but also sets up a system to sell it in the state.  “I want our people to be able to get [cannabis] close to home. I don’t want them to have to drive to Illinois,” Beshear continued. “But that takes an act of the legislature.”

Kentucky would be poised to take advantage of rapidly growing legal medical cannabis markets.  Although the numbers vary state by state, the creation of a state-wide marketplace leads to the creation of more businesses, jobs, and tax revenue, with very little in the way of state expenditures. The Tax Foundation found that the potential excise tax revenue on cannabis after a 3-year growth period for Kentucky could be as high as $83 million for the state.  And in an environment that encourages investment and development of medical and recreational products, those numbers could definitely grow higher.

One of Beshear’s other goals with this executive order is related to criminal justice.  In separate but related actions, the Governor has asked the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts to analyze how many Kentuckians have misdemeanor marijuana charges, with the possibility of pardons coming in the near future.  Legalizing cannabis for medicinal use is the beginning of reducing the number of arrests for marijuana possession in the state, which numbered over 2,800 in 2021 and is significantly biased toward African American males.  Keeping arrests low is another economic consideration for the state, as fewer arrests leads to a smaller prison population, and therefore a smaller expenditure on housing and monitoring a prison population, particularly one that is detained for non-violent cannabis possession and is not a direct threat to greater Kentuckians.

Ultimately, Beshear’s hope is to stir action in the legislature, and that will require a unified commitment from a variety of organizations.  “I’m the first to admit the executive order is imperfect, because the legislature should have done this a long time ago, but it’s also fluid”, said Beshear in the same press conference.  We hope that the rest of the state’s politicians will be just as fluid in their response, for the sake of Kentucky’s economic, physical and moral well-being.

The Executive Order, which took effect as of January 1, 2023, has to-date seen no lawsuit filed challenging its validity.