Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced on Thursday that he has directed his administration to explore issuing pardons for all convictions of simple marijuana possession. Beshear’s announcement follows President Joseph Biden’s move last week to pardon all federal convictions for low-level weed possession and a call for governors to take similar action at the state level.
Beshear noted that despite polls showing that 90% of Kentuckians support legalizing the medical use of cannabis, the state legislature failed to pass a medical marijuana legalization bill earlier this year. He added that lawmakers’ refusal to approve the measure has left “those suffering from Alzheimer’s, ALS, cancer, severe and chronic pain, epilepsy and seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions without access to medical cannabis for relief.”
The governor said that he was not notified in advance that Biden would announce the federal pardons for marijuana possession and ask the states to follow suit. Beshear added that while there are differences between state and federal law, he has asked the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for more information on how many Kentuckians could be eligible for a state pardon for a conviction of low-level cannabis possession.
“Let me be clear, I agree that no one should be in jail simply because of possession of marijuana,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office on Thursday. “I know the vast majority of Kentuckians demand medical cannabis be legalized, and I am committed to keeping Kentuckians updated as we review the information and make plans to move forward.”
Biden Announces Federal Cannabis Pardons
Beshear’s announcement that he would consider pardons for marijuana possession follows Biden’s announcement last week that he would take similar action for all federal felony convictions for simple marijuana possession. Under the plan, about 6,500 federal convictions would be pardoned, while thousands more convictions in the District of Columbia would also be eligible for relief.
“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” the president said in a statement on October 6. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
At a press briefing, Beshear said that he agreed with the president’s views. He also noted that state and federal law differ, adding that marijuana possession is a misdemeanor in the Bluegrass State, rather than a felony.
“Nobody should ever go to jail for simple possession of marijuana and right now, in Kentucky, they don’t,” said Beshear.
But the governor noted that even misdemeanor convictions carry the collateral consequences mentioned by Biden.
“Having a misdemeanor on your record isn’t a small thing,” Beshear said at his weekly news conference. “We want to know how many people this would apply to. So we’ve asked AOC … to get us that information.”
Kentucky Program Offers Expungement
Beshear added that Kentucky currently has a program to issue expungements for simple marijuana possession convictions.
“You can get this removed from your record completely — meaning if you go through the process, it wouldn’t even show up on a search,” said Beshear. “A pardon is different. A pardon would show up on that search, if not expunged. Then, you would provide proof of your pardon.”
But the governor said that he is still exploring pardons because they might help some people, saying “I’m actively considering what he’s asked, even though it doesn’t have the same result of pardoning felonies that it does under the federal system.”
“I’m just trying to set out the context that things are a little different here in Kentucky, but nonetheless, some people may have a hard time getting a job because of a misdemeanor simple possession conviction,” he added.
Beshear said that his administration would review the president’s request and determine how it could be best implemented in Kentucky.
“We are taking this information into consideration and hope to have new steps to announce here in the near future,” the governor said.
Panel Finds Strong Support For Legalizing Medical Marijuana
Biden’s announcement of federal pardons came only two days after Beshear reported that a panel he formed to advise him on cannabis reform in Kentucky has received overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana. The governor said that the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee found that many Kentuckians who suffer from chronic medical conditions are not being helped by traditional painkillers and fear the possibility of addiction posed by opioids. Kentucky is one of 10 states that permit patients to use low-THC cannabis oil, but more potent marijuana products are still prohibited by law.
“Polling suggests 90% of Kentucky adults support legalizing medical cannabis. Our team traveled the state to talk directly to Kentuckians, and they found our people do indeed overwhelmingly support it,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office on September 30. “I appreciate the work of those who participated, and I am taking this information into consideration as I analyze what steps I can take to legalize medical cannabis for those suffering from chronic, debilitating medical conditions.”