As people from across the region flock to neighboring cannabis-open states, Kentucky remains closed

By Becca Schimmel
Ohio Valley Resource

Tourists come from far and wide to see the 15-foot Superman standing with his hands on his hips in downtown Metropolis, Illinois. The town of 6,000 received its name about a century before the conception of the Man of Steel, but the town holds an annual Superman Festival to capitalize on its namesake.

Now, a new attraction has popped up in the Ohio River town after Illinois legalized medical and recreational cannabis in 2020. People from across the region regularly line up outside the Metropolis dispensary, but outsiders are still at risk criminal penalties if they use or possess the drug in their home, whether they purchased it legally or not.

The Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois (Photo by Liam Niemeyer, OVR)

Kentucky is bordered by five states that have legalized marijuana in one form or another. But, it remains illegal in all forms in the Commonwealth. Illinois, on the other hand, completely legalized marijuana, as did Virginia. Both Ohio and West Virginia have legalized its medical use.

Many western Kentucky residents make the short trip over a narrow blue steel bridge that connects Bluegrass to Illinois to sample the produce.

Lori Nichols owns Riverview Mansion, a bed and breakfast nestled in a 140-year-old house in Metropolis, where guests are encouraged to treat the place as their own. She sees a lot of border state license plates around town, but especially at the dispensary. Nichols said having the dispensary in town has also created great demand for weddings. She says a group asked if they could be friends with the “420”.

“It wasn’t like ‘let’s have a party and go higher than a kite’, it was ‘this is our game’. They weren’t drinking, they were drinking sweet tea and marijuana,” she said.

Back in Kentucky, marijuana is completely illegal, even if someone is just driving across the state. Drug possession is a Class B misdemeanor and carries a maximum of 45 days in jail. Trafficking is also a misdemeanor if it’s less than eight ounces, but if it’s more, it’s a felony.

Local law enforcement acknowledges that popular attitudes towards marijuana have changed in recent years, but still arrest people who use or possess the drug on the wrong side of the river, even if it was purchased legally. .

Marijuana plant (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, via OVR)

The Marshall County, Kentucky Sheriff’s Department regularly posts arrests on its Facebook page. In a December 28, 2021 post, the agency released an arrest that reported “several bags of marijuana with a total weight of approximately 13 grams, along with other paraphernalia and items from a dispensary in marijuana in Metropolis, IL.

In a Jan. 10 article of this year, the department admits there are “mixed emotions regarding marijuana for its use,” but warns citizens that the drug “is still illegal in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which makes it a crime to own it here.”

Dave Bundrick, an attorney with Edwards and Kautz in Paducah and a former public defender, says the dispensary is 15 minutes away by car. Kentuckians making the trip can still be arrested for use, but Bundrick said possession of marijuana has effectively been decriminalized, with most people being released with a fine or warning.

“You really don’t see too many people going to jail for pot possession,” he said. “But yeah, there are a lot of people serving time right now for trafficking and a lot of people with felony cases going on right now.”

Bundrick said the court’s attitude toward marijuana cases in Kentucky has changed dramatically over the years. He said it is difficult to get convictions in these kinds of cases now because public opinion has changed.

“These days if you try a marijuana case, it’s hard to sit the jury down because there’s so many people they’ll say, ‘I’m never gonna find anybody guilty,’” Bundrick said. I would definitely send no one to jail.”

There are ripple effects to being arrested and charged with any kind of drug offense, even if it is just a misdemeanor. Marcus Jackson is with the ACLU of Kentucky, he says going to jail isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

The Brookport Bridge, connecting McKracken County to Massac County, Illinois. (Photo by Kentucky Department of Transportation)

“While I was doing criminal expungement work, we had individuals charged with possession of marijuana who were barred from attending their children’s schools,” Jackson said.

Employers who do background checks will be able to see that a person has been charged with possession and this could impact whether or not they get that job. Having limits on where you can work makes it difficult to take care of your family or find the kind of housing you need.

Advocates point out that marijuana isn’t just for recreational use; the drug has medical benefits that states like Kentucky still don’t officially recognize.

According to the Mayo Clinic, medical marijuana can help with conditions like severe chronic pain, nausea from cancer treatment, epilepsy, and more. Jackson suspects that the legalization of marijuana, especially for medical reasons, has brought many new people to Illinois.

“People from Kentucky actually moved to Metropolis because they have health issues that they need marijuana for,” Jackson said. “And they’d rather not take that chance to come back to that bridge and possibly face criminal charges.”

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has announced he is exploring options to legalize medical marijuana by executive order, though it’s unclear whether he has the authority to do so.

The Republican-led state legislature has repeatedly refused to pass a bill legalizing marijuana in any way, though this year lawmakers created a cannabis research center to dig deeper. the question.

Beshear has also created a task force that will travel the state to solicit public comment on the matter.

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