Waiting Game

Kentucky won’t legalize medical marijuana anytime soon, but interested parties are watching Ohio

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click to enlarge Jaime Montavlo, founder of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana
Jaime Montavlo, founder of Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana


hen 64-year-old veteran Thomas Vance went in for a routine screening at a Veteran’s Affairs Clinic seven years ago, he was finally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition commonly seen in veterans.

But unlike most veterans, his condition was brought on by childhood sexual abuse, not his military service. Vance had spent most of his life struggling with the symptoms, at first using alcohol mainly to help deal with the pain. But it wasn’t until he started using marijuana two years after he joined the military that he found a positive way to deal with it.

“Twenty years in the military and when alcohol was on the scene, I never got promoted and sometimes got in trouble,” he says.

“When cannabis was on the scene, I never got in trouble and always got promoted. So, go figure.”  

Vance is part of the group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, which advocates for military veterans to be able to use marijuana to treat conditions such as PTSD and chronic pain. He says marijuana helps reduce his PTSD symptoms by 90 percent.

He also currently lives Alexandria, Ky, just 15 minutes from the Ohio border, where in less than a month, residents will vote on a ballot initiative that could make Ohio the fifth state to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use.     

Vance says marijuana’s legalization in Ohio probably wouldn’t affect him much. Even though he uses Cincinnati’s Veteran’s Affairs Clinic, he still lives in Kentucky, where the cultivation or possession of marijuana results in anything from a misdemeanor to time in prison. But he’s hoping Ohio’s initiative will catch the attention of Kentucky lawmakers.

“I would think that legalization in Ohio would just push legalization, at least a medical bill, here in Kentucky, but we’ll have to see,” Vance says.

Unlike Ohio, Kentucky doesn’t allow ballot initiatives by which voters can bypass legislators as long as they turn in enough petition signatures.

Super PAC ResponsibleOhio did this last summer when it turned in a petition with more than 300,000 signatures, enough to place the issue on Ohio’s Nov. 3 ballot.

But if Kentuckians want to legalize weed, they’ll have to do so through their legislature. And while Kentucky might be far from passing Colorado-type laws legalizing the drug for recreational use, some lawmakers have started to push for medical marijuana.

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) introduced a bill last session that would have made medical marijuana legal for patients if prescribed by a certified physician. The bill never made it out of the House Health and Welfare Committee. Stumbo didn’t even request a vote on it, but said he introduced it just to start the conversation.

“I think we got the ball rolling,” he told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “And I think it’s rolling in the right direction now.”

Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) is possibly medical marijuana’s biggest supporter in the Kentucky legislature. He has introduced bills over the past few sessions that would legalize the drug and has even said a doctor recommended that he use it for back pain.

For some lawmakers, the stigma against marijuana is still strong, according to Jaime Montalvo, president of the nonprofit group Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana.

Montalvo says a lot of politicians the group has spoken to have expressed curiosity privately, but refuse to even speak about it publicly, much less take a position on the issue.

“Behind closed doors, they all know it’s coming,” Montalvo says. “They all know it has to happen. They all know somebody who can benefit, but none of them will talk about it. None of them have the courage. They’re all afraid of that re-election.”   

Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, says even though recent bills haven’t made it far, with the recent support of House Speaker Stumbo and push from advocacy groups, he believes Kentucky has a shot at legalizing medical marijuana in the near future.

“I think it has a good chance,” Dewey says. “There’s been some opposition, but there seems to be growing support given the fact that, you know, people  who have various cancers and other inflictions have been arguing that this is something that can help ease their pain.”

Medical marijuana has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat any medical conditions. Most previous studies on marijuana have focused on the harm it could cause, and researchers are just beginning to focus on possible medical benefits. Some studies have shown promise that it could treat chronic pain and conditions such as certain types of cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers have also started studying the possible benefits marijuana use could have on veterans who have PTSD.   

Rates of PTSD run high in military veterans. Kentucky has approximately 311,000 veterans, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Experts estimate that 20 percent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, which is often treated with heavy-duty anti-depressants. New Mexico recently began allowing its VA hospitals to begin prescribing medical marijuana.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana, but it remains illegal under federal law — where it’s classified with heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug — or illegal drugs that are considered to have a high potential for abuse with no medical benefits.

For Colorado, having laws on marijuana that are drastically different from the federal law and those of its neighboring states has caused tension. Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a lawsuit last December against Colorado claiming that its voter-approved legalization of marijuana has increased drug trafficking in their states and is actually illegal because it is still prohibited under federal law. Colorado has asked the Supreme Court to toss the case, but so far the high court has refused.

There’s no evidence that similar tensions would arise between Kentucky and Ohio, if Ohio does legalize marijuana, nor is it guaranteed that a change in Ohio’s laws would push Kentucky any further toward medical marijuana.

Dewey of the University of Louisville says

he doesn’t believe ResponsibleOhio’s ballot initiative will have much of an influence on Kentucky’s legislature in Frankfort, but legislators will still be watching to see what will happen in Ohio. 

“Kentucky never tends to be a sort of bellwether state,” Dewey says. “There are a few issues that we take a firm stand and early jump on and that type of thing, but usually we wait and see what other states do.” ©

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