Almost 60 percent of Kentuckians believe marijuana use should be legal “under any circumstances,” while 90 percent are in favor of medical marijuana legalization, according to a new survey.

These findings, courtesy of the annual Kentucky Health Issues Poll, represent a huge jump in support for some kind of cannabis reform in the state, at a time when lawmakers are set to debate a new medical marijuana bill. In 2012, only 38 percent of respondents to the poll said cannabis should be legal “under any circumstances,” while 78 percent supported legal medical cannabis.

To confuse matters though, the pollsters found less support for marijuana legalization when respondents were explicitly asked their view on it for “recreational purposes” – only 49 percent said it should be legal for this reason. Perhaps the respondents weren’t clear that “under any circumstances” would include recreational use? In any case, support for recreational cannabis legalization has also seen a big increase from 2012, when it stood at only 26 percent.

As expected, party affiliation tends to predict an individual’s view on the issue. Only 38 percent of Republican respondents think cannabis should be legalized for recreational purposes, compared with 60 percent of Democrats. Republican support for legal cannabis under any circumstance jumps up to 51 percent, while 68 percent of Democrats hold the same position. Independents, as they tend to do, sit somewhere in between each position.

Republican opposition to recreational cannabis legalization seems at odds with the slight majority in favor of legalizing for any purpose. But Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky — which co-funded the survey — is not surprised by the results given what was said at a health policy forum last year.

“What we heard at the forum—and what this poll confirms—is that support for medical marijuana is very strong, but we also learned that it’s well ahead of the science showing that marijuana is safe and effective for most of the medical conditions claimed by pro-legalization advocates. Despite the continuing lack of evidence, dozens of states have legalized medical marijuana. If Kentucky follows suit, our goal must be to put in place measures to protect the public health going forward.”

The caveat to this strong support, according to Chandler, is a fear that any kind of cannabis reform “makes it more available and socially acceptable.”

This remains undesirable to many Kentucky lawmakers, perhaps none more so than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). He helped push for hemp’s legalization in the 2018 Farm Bill and has continued to fight the corner of hemp farmers since its passing, but shares no such enthusiasm for cannabis. At one time he described the plant as hemp’s “illicit cousin.”

Rep. Jason Nemes (R) is not phased by McConnell’s opposition. He is lead sponsor of the medical marijuana bill that was overwhelmingly approved by the Judiciary Committee which now makes it way to the House Floor for a full vote. HB 136 would legalize, regulate and tax medical cannabis. The bill explicitly forbids smoking cannabis flower, but dispensaries could sell it for other purposes.

Such a bill was passed by the same committee last year though, and never got a shot at a vote by the end of the legislative session. Why should medical marijuana reform advocates in Kentucky expect anything better this time round?

“We tweaked the bill over the summer,” Nemes told the committee before the vote. “We made some changes to it. We’ve been through this before. It’s a big issue for Kentucky.”

Even if the bill is passed by the House, it then has to navigate its way through the Senate, where President Robert Stivers (R) is seen as one of the biggest barriers to passing medical cannabis legislation. Still, even he acknowledged that there is a chance, albeit small, of medical marijuana being legalized.

“I know that Representative Nemes is trying hard and that he is modifying and amending,” Stivers told Kentucky Today, “and I think there is a path, but it is a narrow path.”

The question remains, why is the path laid out by lawmakers so narrow when the polls clearly show what voters want? Kentucky has some of the harshest cannabis laws in the country and a worsening opioid epidemic which studies suggest legal marijuana could help alleviate. The voters have had enough of a failed policy and lawmakers would do well to listen.

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