Despite the dramatic shift in opinion about cannabis in America, Kentucky law enforcement agents continued to charge people with cannabis-related charges at a steady rate, in tandem with offenses across the board.
According to analysis of the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) data, more than 300,000 people in Kentucky have been charged with a cannabis-related crime over the past two decades. That’s nearly two people every hour, every day between June 2002 and July 2022, the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy wrote. To be fair, just one out of 10 of the 3.1 million people charged with a crime in Kentucky in that time period faced cannabis charges, but the numbers are still too high.
“Every corner of the commonwealth has seen people charged with cannabis crimes with some counties having dozens charged and others tens of thousands,” Kentucky Center for Economic Policy wrote.
“Data also reveals starkly different conviction rates, with some rural areas nearly twice as likely to convict someone for a cannabis charge than Kentucky’s biggest city. Still, as much of the country has moved to more permissive policies, Kentucky continues to subject people to incarceration, burdensome fines, community supervision, and criminal charges for cannabis crimes. These consequences have lasting, harmful effects on people’s economic security, employment, health, housing and ability to fully participate in community life. And these consequences often fall disproportionately on low-income and Black and Brown Kentuckians.”
Possession remains the most common cannabis charge in Kentucky, a Class B misdemeanor that can lead up to 45 days in jail and a fine of up to $250.
Cannabis Charges Impact Lives
Just how widespread is the issue? The report’s county-by-county data also shows that every community in the state is affected. “Every Kentucky county had people charged with cannabis offenses during these two decades—from 68 people in Robertson County to 72,717 in Jefferson County,” the report reads. “Expressed as the number of annualized cannabis-related charges per 1,000 county residents in the two-decade period, 1.5 people per 1,000 had a cannabis charge in Robertson County in contrast to 8.4 people per 1,000 in Carroll County. Lyon County is an outlier, where 16.4 people per 1,000 had a cannabis charge.”
“While most of those 300,000 people were charged with possession, their lives are still impacted,” Kaylee Raymer, policy analyst for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, told Fox 56. “Whether it’s through fines and fees, it could affect their ability to get public housing or their ability to get a job if that’s on their record. So there are still consequences that come with cannabis-related charges.”
The Kentucky Legislature reduced the penalty for cannabis possession in 2011 and the 2023 General Assembly took an important step in legalizing a limited model of medical cannabis starting in 2025. The only qualifying conditions are chronic pain, chronic nausea/vomiting, epilepsy/seizure disorder, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms/spasticity, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
That said, Kentucky is still among just 18 “cannabis desert” states that continue to prohibit cannabis in spite of the shift in public opinion.
Over the past two decades—running from July 1, 2002 to June 29, 2022—an estimated 303,264 people in Kentucky were charged with various cannabis offenses, according to AOC data published by the Vera Institute of Justice. Since 1983, the prison custody population has increased 168%, the Vera Institute of Justice reported in its recent Incarceration Trends Report.
In 2019, 20,087 people were charged with a cannabis offense, with a 53% conviction rate. But due to the pandemic, there were much fewer arrests and case delays as most courts were closed.
Curiously, despite cannabis being viewed as virtually harmless by many, cannabis conviction held steady in tandem with conviction rates for all offenses. Between 2003 and 2021 the conviction rate for people charged with cannabis offenses was 59% and for all offenses was 63%, on average.
New Changes in Kentucky Cannabis Law
There are also new laws in place, particularly regarding hemp-derived cannabinoids.
On March 23, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed a bill to regulate hemp-derived delta-8 THC products. Beshear signed an executive order last year to regulate delta-8 THC and similar products, but that only affected the packaging and labeling of products.
House Bill 544 mandates that only adults 21 and over can buy products containing delta-8 THC—a hemp-derived compound frequently marketed as psychoactive—which began on August 1.
Per the bill, the state will regulate “any product containing delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol or any other hemp-derived substance identified by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services as having intoxicating effects on consumers.”
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