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  • Christopher D.

Kentucky's Medical Marijuana Program Hits Potential Roadblock in Funding Battle

After years of advocacy and legislative efforts, Kentucky finally took a major step towards allowing medical marijuana access when a bill to establish a tightly regulated program was signed into law. However, the long awaited rollout now faces a potential roadblock thanks to some restrictive language included in the newly passed state budget.

While funding was allocated to stand up the required regulatory infrastructure, those dollars could be withheld unless an advisory board determines there is sufficient research evidence supporting the therapeutic efficacy of marijuana. This controversial provision puts implementation timelines in jeopardy as stakeholders begin weighing next steps.

Strict Barriers Imposed on Unlocking Program Funds

Among the budget legislation now sitting on Governor Andy Beshear's desk is language that places unusual conditions on when the proposed $8 million in funding can be accessed to operationalize Kentucky's new medical marijuana program in 2025.  

Specifically, the provision states: "No funds shall become available until the Board of Physicians and Advisors...finds there is a propensity of peer-reviewed, published research with sufficient evidence as to the efficacy of medical marijuana for the persistent reduction of symptoms of diseases and conditions."

The subjective phrasing around determining a "propensity" of "sufficient evidence" has raised concerns among advocates who worry it gives the seven member advisory panel broad discretion to potentially block or delay funding indefinitely based on arbitrary standards. It represents a slightly pared back version of language initially proposed in the state Senate's budget that would have imposed an even stricter mandate for "conclusive evidence" on efficacy, a bar that many argue is impossible for any medicine to conclusively clear.

"We're extremely disappointed to see yet another potential roadblock thrown up against finally getting this vital program up and running for Kentucky patients desperately waiting on safe access," said Jessica Housman, a spokesperson for medical marijuana advocacy group Kentucky Home Growers.  "This language seems to arbitrarily raise the evidentiary threshold far beyond the already robust body of research cited when lawmakers passed the medical marijuana act last year."

Research Overwhelmingly Supports Medical Marijuana 

While Kentucky's budget puts the onus on the Board of Physicians and Advisors to subjectively assess the body of evidence, mainstream medical and scientific consensus already recognizes the therapeutic potential and relative safety of marijuana as medicine.

The National Library of Medicine currently lists over 25,000 published studies related to medical marijuana's benefits for various conditions. Established sources like the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have concluded that marijuana provides relief across a range of symptoms and diseases, particularly in treating chronic pain, chemotherapy side effects and Multiple Sclerosis related muscle spasticity.

More recently, a January 2023 extensive scientific review commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found credible evidence supporting marijuana's effectiveness as a medical treatment option for some conditions.

"While more research would certainly be welcome, the efficacy of medical marijuana is just not up for debate anymore," said Dr. Mary Garcia, Kentucky Home Growers' medical advisor. "We have well over half a century of peer reviewed data from across the globe confirming the therapeutic utility of marijuana for patients suffering from chronic pain, seizures, and wasting diseases among other approved conditions."

Potential Delays Worrisome for Suffering Kentuckians

Given the thoroughness of existing evidence, some advocates worry that the budgetary requirements could be used as a bureaucratic delaying tactic to stall implementation of the medical marijuana program approved by state lawmakers.

Approved in 2022, Senate Bill 47 established a regulatory framework for cultivation, processing, testing and dispensing of marijuana products to patients suffering from any of 21 qualifying medical conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, severe and chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

However, the bill stipulated that the program could not become operational until Jan 1, 2025 at the earliest, over two years after it was signed into law. Now the budget funding restrictions threaten to push back that timeline even further.

"For patients battling debilitating cancer, seizure disorders or chronic pain, every month of additional delay could translate into severe unnecessary suffering," remarked Garcia. "Many of our sickest residents face an unconscionable choice of either continuing to endure severe symptoms or turning to the unregulated illicit market which poses all sorts of risks."

For those reasons and others, a growing number of medical marijuana states have moved to protect patients from criminal penalties while they await program launch. In Kentucky, Beshear issued an executive pardon in 2022 to provide legal protections for eligible residents who meet certain requirements while possessing medical marijuana products from licensed out of state dispensaries.

While a partial solution, advocates argue the urgency to get Kentucky's regulated medical marijuana system fully established remains pressing for patients unable to travel across state lines to access medicine.

Potential Solutions and Next Steps  

With the restrictive budget policy now squarely on his desk, all eyes have turned to Governor Beshear to see how he will respond and potentially utilize his line item veto authority. Given his outspoken support for medical marijuana access, advocates are hopeful the Governor could strike down the language around requiring "propensity of sufficient evidence" before funding can flow. However, the political optics and implications of taking such an action remain unclear.

Even if the language remains in place, Beshear could also theoretically direct the Board of Advisors to rapidly convene and determine that existing research clears the evidentiary bar so funding is not needlessly delayed.

Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey (D), who supports medical marijuana legalization, suggested his caucus would examine the language more closely and consult with the Governor's counsel: "If it's truly an impediment, I'm confident Gov. Beshear is going to use all the tools at his disposal to make sure the will of the people and the General Assembly is realized."

Should the budget restrictions end up significantly hampering Kentucky's program implementation, lawmakers could attempt to address the issue in next year's legislative session as well. Rep. Jason Nemes (R), who sponsored the medical marijuana bill that passed last year, acknowledged the language caught many off guard but seemed optimistic that solutions could be found.

"The language still needs to be vetted publicly and thoroughly to determine if there may be any true roadblocks," said Nemes. "With the reams of sufficient research already in place, no one's intention should be to halt this program before it even gets started in earnest. I'm confident we can work through this collaboratively with all stakeholders involved."

Why Kentucky Patients Need Legal Access

For the thousands of Kentuckians who currently qualify under the 2025 medical marijuana law or could benefit from gaining legal access, this latest budgetary wrinkle represents another vexing setback on what has already been an arduous path to reform.

Many patients find that conventional medications and treatments simply do not provide sufficient relief from their debilitating symptoms stemming from cancer, PTSD, Multiple Sclerosis, intractable pain or the effects of HIV/AIDs, all of which are included as valid qualifying conditions in Kentucky's forthcoming program. Obtaining a legal medical marijuana card holds the promise of safe and regulated access to alternative marijuana-derived therapies that numerous robust studies show provide effective symptom management, relief from side effects and substantive quality of life improvements.

"When you're suffering from the nausea, pain and vomiting associated with chemotherapy or completely immobilized by severe muscle spasticity, medical marijuana can mean the difference between functionality and abject misery," stated Dr. Garcia. "These patients shouldn't be held hostage indefinitely by burdensome red tape requirements." Beyond ensuring a safe source of verified medical marijuana products, having the legal protections of a state-issued ID card exempts patients and caregivers from potential criminal penalties related to possession that can derail lives and livelihoods.

As Kentucky's burgeoning medical marijuana industry awaits clarity on what's next, one point remains abundantly clear to advocates, qualified patients desperately need legal access to begin as soon as humanly possible, regardless of any misguided political gamesmanship over the evidentiary standards. Their health, wellbeing and quality of life may depend on it.

Get Ready for Medical Marijuana in Kentucky

Medical marijuana will be legal in Kentucky in 2025! However, Kentuckians who qualify can receive a pardon if purchasing medical marijuana from other states, so get a doctor's certification as legal protection!

Marijuana is a natural, safe alternative medicine without the harsh side effects of many prescription drugs. If you think you could benefit from medical marijuana, you probably qualify!

Schedule an online evaluation with one of our knowledgeable, compassionate doctors or contact us at (833) 781-6360.

You'll meet with your doctor virtually via a telemedicine appointment using your smartphone or computer, and together, you'll discuss your qualifying condition. Read more about the executive order and the requirements to be eligible for a pardon here.

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