Kentucky Politics

Kentucky adults would be able to use, possess and grow small amounts of cannabis under a pair of bills proposed for the upcoming legislative session.

The measures—one of which would amend the state Constitution—seek to decriminalize the personal use of cannabis, but wouldn’t create the system of licensed growers and retailers seen in other states that have legalized it.

Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a Democrat from Louisville and sponsor of the bills, said Kentucky is in a “confused place” because polling shows most voters are in favor of legalizing cannabis but lawmakers still won’t do it.

“We are in a shrinking minority of states that have no provisions for adult cannabis use. I think given the momentum it has nationally and statewide, I think we need to do something, and I think our voters want us to do something,” Kulkarni said.

According to a 2020 poll by the Foundation For A Healthy Kentucky, 59% of Kentuckians support legalizing cannabis for adults and 90% support legalizing it for medical use.

One of Kulkarni’s proposals would:

  • Eliminate criminal penalties for possessing or selling up to an ounce of cannabis and possessing cannabis paraphernalia
  • Allow people to grow up to five cannabis plants
  • Allow people to expunge their criminal records if they were convicted for possessing cannabis in the past.
  • Change the wording in state law from “marijuana” to “cannabis,” the scientific moniker for the plant.

Kulkarni’s other proposal would amend the state Constitution to give people the right to possess, use and grow cannabis as long as they are at least 21 years old.

Constitutional amendments have to meet a higher threshold to become law. They have to be approved by three-fifths of each chamber in the legislature and a majority of voters during a statewide referendum.

Kulkarni says she wants Kentuckians to be able to weigh in on the issue.

“This would be the only way to get language on the ballot to let voters kind of decide how they feel about decriminalizing cannabis statewide,” Kulkarni said. “I think this would provide a way to get a very clear answer from voters directly.”

Though the Republican-led legislature has been hesitant to legalize cannabis use in any form, a separate effort to legalize cannabis for medical use has gotten some traction.

That proposal, sponsored by Louisville GOP Rep. Jason Nemes, would only allow people with some serious medical conditions to possess or use cannabis in non-smokable forms. A similar measure passed out of the House in 2020 but was never taken up in the Senate.

Kulkarni said her more expansive proposals are part of a different conversation focused on reforming the criminal justice system.

“It wouldn’t fully alleviate the disparate impacts that the War on Drugs has had on Black and Brown communities, but it would be one step to making sure those low-level drug offenses and drug paraphernalia offenses aren’t clogging up our criminal justice system,” Kulkarni said.

Nearly half—46%—of all defendants of cannabis-related charges in Kentucky are Black even though Black people are about 8% of the state’s population, according to an analysis by the Lexington Herald Leader earlier this year.

Illinois expunged about 500,000 cannabis-related criminal records within the first year of its cannabis legalization law.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.