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Marijuana is still illegal in many states, but signs are pointing to broader acceptance of the illicit drug in Kentucky.
Some officials and advocates say  Kentucky could eventually legalize recreational marijuana, and should look to other states for guidance on how to approach laws related to the drug.

The discussion was part of WFPL’s In Conversation, which explored changes in attitude around marijuana. Our guests were:

  • Colorado Public Radio Reporter Ann Marie Awad
  • State Representative Nima Kulkarni
  • Metro Councilman Brandon Coan
  • Marijuana Policy Project Legislative Analyst Matt Simon

State Representative Nima Kulkarni said most Kentuckians support legalizing marijuana, adding that she expects the state will eventually legalize recreational cannabis. But before that happens, Kulkarni said Kentucky should consider racial inequities in the industry elsewhere.

“80 percent, right now, of legal cannabis businesses are owned by white owners,” Kulkarni said. “Meanwhile you’ve got people that are sitting in jail for these low-level offenses for decades that are disproportionately people of color. So you cannot move forward, in my opinion, with legalizing cannabis in any way without first addressing that racial impact.”

State Representative Nima Kulkarni (left) and Louisville Metro Councilman Brandon Coan (right)

Most times, marijuana-related offenses in Louisville have affected people of color.

A Courier Journal analysis found black drivers were more likely to be cited for having marijuana even though black and white people use it at similar rates. And as the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found, police used helicopters to scout out a black Louisville resident’s shed, suspecting a grow operation; when they searched, they found a single marijuana blunt that incurred around $700 in fines and legal fees.

Regardless, Metro councilman Brandon Coan said things are changing in Kentucky. Coan said votes to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky encouraged him to push for an ordinance directing Louisville Metro Police to make possession of small amounts a low enforcement priority. The Jefferson County Attorney also recently said he would prosecute fewer marijuana cases.

“I think that the economic benefits that could result from legalization, or health benefits or some of those other benefits, are important, and things that we should continue to pursue,” Coan said. “But I would be equally be as happy to see the state pursue the criminal justice kind of purpose that we looked at here in Louisville.”

Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the non-profit Marijuana Policy Project in Washington D.C, said marijuana prohibition has failed and people across the nation still use the drug. Simon said Kentuckians could especially benefit from its legalization.

“There are thousands of people in Kentucky who are suffering, who have serious illnesses, who are using opioids and other pharmaceuticals and who would be breaking the law if they were to obtain cannabis,” Simon. “The most important priority for Kentucky is to make an exception for medical cannabis patients.”

Before it would be legalized, guests on In Conversation’s panel said officials should consider consequences that come with legalization. Colorado Public Radio reporter Ann Marie Awad covers changes in the marijuana industry.

“The biggest problem that people were worried about was and increase in youth use, and it has not borne out,” Awad said, adding that youth who do use it have more high-concentrated products. “So that’s another area of complicated nuance.”

Join us for In Conversation next week as we talk about Here Today, WFPL’s podcast about development and changes in west Louisville.