Politics

On Wednesday, Kentucky legislators listened to a presentation about the benefits of medical cannabis from Don Stacy, a cancer doctor and medical liaison for pro-legalization group Alliance for Innovative Medicine.

Stacy said he had several patients who regularly used cannabis to mollify pain and nausea associated with cancer and chemotherapy, and despite early skepticism of their habits, had come to believe that the drug had benefits.

“Patients all the time are telling me ‘I am using cannabis and I feel a lot better,’” Stacy said.

But there’s no legal way for Stacy to scientifically study his patients’ claims or find out the content and dosages of the cannabis they use.

This summer, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration refused to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I drug — meaning the drug is still considered to have no legitimate medical purpose. Currently, only the University of Mississippi can legally conduct scientific studies on medical uses of cannabis, though the DEA did say this summer it would allow more institutions to do research.

The Kentucky Medical Association has opposed legalizing medical marijuana until it’s approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester Republican and physician, cast doubt on Stacy’s claims during the committee hearing, saying systematic research still needed to be conducted.

“We don’t use anecdotes or subjective information to make decisions,” Alvarado said. “We want to have science and data behind that to approve those kind of things going forward.”

The Kentucky Nurses Association recently endorsed a bill that would regulate the drug, saying that “providing legal access to medical cannabis is imperative.”

According to a 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 78 percent of Kentucky voters support allowing people to use marijuana for medical purposes if a doctor recommends it. Still, the issue hasn’t gotten much traction in the legislature and lawmakers who support some form of legalization are often squeamish about it.

“I’m somewhere along the spectrum,” said Louisville Democratic Rep. Darryl Owens. “I know where I start but I don’t know where I end.”

Several lawmakers expressed concerns about the chemical content of the cannabis plant, which they said was complicated and needed more research. Others worried that if legalized for medical purposes, the drug could be easily diverted for recreational use.

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Republican from Lebanon, said most lawmakers are still trying to figure out how a medical marijuana law would be implemented.

“It’s a battle where we’re trying to decide where we’re at on this issue,” Higdon said.

Higdon expressed interest in a proposal that would allow the drug to be prescribed in end-of-life situations.

Louisville Democratic Sen. Perry Clark proposed a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use during this year’s legislative session. The bill was assigned to a committee but never received a hearing.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.