Medical marijuana, sports wagering bills achieve final passage on last day of session

Published 9:18 am Friday, March 31, 2023

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Two high-profile bills on medical marijuana and sports wagering that have been introduced for several years but never received final approval were passed on the final day of the 2023 General Assembly.

The House introduced and passed medical marijuana legislation several times during the past few years, but never received even committee consideration in the Senate until earlier this month.

Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, was the main sponsor of Senate Bill 47, which cleared the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee by a vote of 18-2 during the early afternoon, then passed the full House Thursday evening.

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During House floor debate, Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, who sponsored the versions that passed the chamber in prior years and supported this year’s bill, told his colleagues: “This is a no-smoke bill, no self-grow and it takes a bona fide relationship between the patient and the doctor or nurse practitioner, requiring an in-person visit the first time, before being able to use telehealth services.”

Rep. Danny Bentley, R-Greenup, and a career pharmacist, spoke against the measure.

“Medical marijuana does have merit, but the reality is we don’t have sufficient scientific evidence to support all the claims that it is an effective pain-relieving agent, and is safe to use as a medication.”

In the end, the House approved SB 47 on a 66-33 vote.

At the same time, the Senate took up House Bill 551, which would legalize sports wagering in Kentucky, both online and at brick-and-mortar locations.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, presented the bill to his colleagues.

“There’s a fiscal note that says it would raise $23 million annually, but I think that number is low,” Thayer noted. “Tennessee, which has only online wagering, had $68 million go to its general fund last year.”

Under HB 551, 2.5% of the proceeds would go to problem gambling services, with the remainder being used to help shore up Kentucky’s public pension systems.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, was one of those speaking in opposition. He pointed out that disposable income is limited for many people.

“Whatever money is spent gambling on whatever sport you want to bet on is money that is not spent in a church offering plate. It’s not spent on a United Way campaign or a non-profit that needs you. It’s not spent on food at the grocery store.”

David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation in Kentucky, was disappointed with the decision on medical marijuana and sports wagering.

“The expansion of predatory, government-sponsored gambling in HB 551 is a lose-lose for Kentuckians, especially for children,” he said. “The social harms of predatory gambling are only amplified with online sports betting on highly addictive phones and tablets. Make no mistake, despite any attempt to protect the vulnerable from this highly addictive form of gambling, this will harm Kentuckians – including children.”

Walls said it was hard to understand how a General Assembly which voted to ban gray machines to make sure gas stations across Kentucky would not become mini-casinos has now voted to turn every cellphone in Kentucky into a digital casino.

“Kentuckians surely did not elect pro-family majorities in the General Assembly to pass Governor Beshear’s legislative agenda to expand predatory gambling and legalize ‘medical’ marijuana. Kentuckians deserve better from their elected leaders,” he said.

The final vote was 25-12.

The two measures go to Gov. Andy Beshear, who is likely to sign both of them, as he issued an executive order earlier on medical marijuana and has said he supports expanded gambling, as long as it is well-regulated.