State Rep. Cluster Howard

If marijuana legalization still seems like a distant issue, something that’s happening out west or in Canada, it won’t be that way for long. On Jan. 1, it will be as close as a drive across the Ohio River, thanks to Illinois’ decision to become the 11th state allowing adult recreational use.

Such a move may have been unthinkable a decade ago, but just as the country’s views on alcohol changed during the 13 years of Prohibition, more and more Americans are re-evaluating how they feel about marijuana.

Much of that is due to the increased acceptance of that plant for medical uses. More than 30 states allow it for that purpose, and polls have repeatedly shown an overwhelming majority of Kentuckians would be happy to have the commonwealth join that list.

I think it’s time to go even further, which is why I am working with advocates on legislation that would legalize marijuana use among those 21 and older.

As states like Colorado and Washington have shown, the benefits of full legalization easily outweigh the challenges. It would provide an immediate and substantial boost to our economy and state government’s bottom line. It would give farmers a major new crop to grow; and it would be a powerful weapon to tackle the devastating opioid and meth epidemics.

Illinois is projecting marijuana-related sales to be between $1.6 billion and $2.5 billion, and the state’s portion could be as much as $676 million annually. Since Kentucky’s population is a third as large as our northern neighbor’s, it’s reasonable to think sales here could approach $800 million.

My bill, which I will pre-file next month, would establish the regulatory framework for growers, processors and retailers, and includes a home-growing provision for personal use.

I believe we should dedicate all license fees and wholesale taxes generated by my bill to paying down the multibillion-dollar liabilities facing our state retirement systems. Such a move would free up more tax dollars for public education and other critical programs that have weathered repeated cuts over the past decade.

On the criminal-justice side, my legislation would allow for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana while making it possible for those with a misdemeanor marijuana charge to qualify for free expungement.

This dual approach would ease overcrowding in our jails and prisons while giving potentially thousands of Kentuckians the fresh start they deserve. 

I understand the concerns opponents may have, but other states have shown that this can and does work — and my bill will incorporate that hard-earned experience so we do not make the same mistakes.

As legalization gains wider acceptance, there are signs that progress is being made in Washington, too. Just recently, a congressional committee voted for the first time ever in favor of essentially letting states dictate their own policy on marijuana.

States should have this flexibility, and more will undoubtedly take advantage of all that legalization has to offer. It remains one of only a few options that generates a significant amount revenue without raising current taxes a single dime.

If the General Assembly doesn’t adopt my bill later this spring, I at least hope this work starts a serious discussion about when should be the right time. The longer we wait, the more money we leave on the table and the more opportunities we lose. For once, let’s put Kentucky at the forefront of states willing to take bold action.

My bill is the vehicle that can get us there.

State Rep. Cluster Howard, D-Jackson, represents the 91st House District, which includes Breathitt, Estill, Lee, Owsley and part of Madison counties. He can be reached through Brian Wilkerson at

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