Kentucky Politics

An eastern Kentucky lawmaker has proposed a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and dedicate tax revenues from the industry to the state’s cash-strapped pension systems.

The proposal is a long-shot in the Republican-dominated Kentucky legislature, but Democratic Rep. Cluster Howard of Jackson says that citizens are more receptive to marijuana than they have been in the past.

“I think that a lot of people make this a moral issue. To me, we know as a society that times have changed. People are more apt to accept legalization of the product,” Howard said.

The bill would allow the state to regulate marijuana growers, processors, testers and retailers. It would also decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and expunge the criminal records of those with marijuana-related misdemeanors.

Howard predicted the bill could bring in more than $200 million per year in tax revenue. The bill would dedicate revenues to the state’s struggling pension systems, which are short about $37 billion.

So far, 11 states have legalized marijuana use for adults over age 21 and 33 states have legalized it for medical use.

Howard said he doubts the bill will get a hearing in the Republican-dominated legislature, but encouraged citizens to call their lawmakers about the issue.

“I think it depends on how much people actually call their reps and their senators and insist that it be heard. I do think that the chance of the bill being heard is much greater this session than it was last session,” Howard said.

Newly-inaugurated Gov. Andy Beshear has signaled support for medical marijuana but says he doesn’t favor recreational use.

A medical marijuana bill passed out of a Kentucky legislative committee earlier this year, but never received a vote in the house. The bill would have not allowed patients to smoke marijuana.

Adult marijuana use will be legal in Kentucky’s northwestern neighbor Illinois starting on Jan 1, 2020. Officials there predict it will bring in about $375 million a year in tax revenue and create a path to clear 700,000 low-level marijuana convictions.

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