By BRUCE SCHREINER
More than two decades ago, hospital staff looked the other way when his brother smoked marijuana to help maintain his appetite while battling AIDS, former U.S. Rep. Mike Ward said. Now the ex-congressman wants to bring medical marijuana into the mainstream in Kentucky.
Ward, who served one term in Congress from the Louisville-area 3rd District, said Monday that he has formed the nonprofit group Legalize Kentucky Now, which will promote legislation aimed at allowing the prescription of marijuana for medical purposes.
The issue is expected to surface during the 2016 General Assembly session, which begins Tuesday in Frankfort.
Nearly two dozen states have legalized medical marijuana to treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, epilepsy and seizure disorders. In Kentucky, medical marijuana supporters could have some powerful allies, though plenty of obstacles remain.
New Gov. Matt Bevin said during last year’s campaign that he supported legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
Asked about the issue on Monday, Bevin told reporters at the state Capitol that he would have to see the legislation.
"I’ve been very clear from the beginning that is a piece of legislation that, depending on how it is crafted, depending on how that would be regulated, depending on how that would be prescribed, is something I could be supportive of. And I continue to feel the same way, but we’ll see," Bevin, a Republican, said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo filed a medical marijuana bill last year that stirred discussion but no action. Stumbo has said he would gauge support for a similar measure this year, and "if there appears to be a chance of passage, then we will proceed."
Ward, a former state lawmaker, will return to the state Capitol to promote the issue. He raised the case of his brother Alexander, who died of AIDS in 1992, to make his argument that people should not be treated as criminals for smoking marijuana to relieve pain or suffering.
"The hospital staff looked the other way as he smoked marijuana in the bathroom because they knew it could help him with his appetite, it could help him keep food down," Ward said at a news conference. "It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 20 years and that hasn’t changed. It’s still illegal. People still have to look the other way, and that’s what I’d like to see change."
Ward said he has lined up lawmakers to sponsor a measure but didn’t identify them.
Kentucky leaders have already embraced hemp — marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin. Hemp production has returned to the state, though the total acreage harvested is still small. Hemp plants are prized for their oils, seeds and fiber, which can be turned into a multitude of products.
In 2014, Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill allowing doctors at two research hospitals to prescribe an oil from hemp to treat child seizures.
Ward acknowledged that resistance from law enforcement could be a major obstacle for medical marijuana legislation.
"I do think we can get an understanding in the law enforcement community that what we’re looking to do is to not make anything into the Wild West," he said. "That our goal is to make sure that there is a safe, medical, necessary use and it is not turning people who have a medical need into criminals."
Meanwhile, state Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, wants to go much further with a bill that would allow recreational marijuana use for adults over 21.
His proposal would repeal the state’s ban on marijuana cultivation, possession and sale. It would set up a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales.