Kentucky lawmakers weigh in on abortion and medical cannabis

By BRUCE SCHREINER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Efforts to persuade Kentucky lawmakers to loosen the state’s near-total abortion ban to create more legal exceptions for ending a pregnancy would be a “difficult sell” in the Senate, Republican Sen. Damon Thayer said Wednesday.

Another key GOP lawmaker, state Rep. Jason Nemes, said the next push to fully legalize medical marijuana should start in the Senate — which is where previous measures died after passing the House. Nemes, who is assuming the role of House majority whip, and Thayer, who serves as the Senate majority floor leader, are part of leadership teams in their respective chambers in the GOP-dominated state Legislature.

The two social issues both have the potential to divide Kentucky Republicans during the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January. The issues came up during a wide-ranging preview session organized by the Louisville Forum, a nonpartisan public issues group.

The state’s strict abortion law now includes narrow exceptions to save a pregnant person’s life or to prevent disabling injury. The so-called trigger law — which took effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June by the U.S. Supreme Court — is being challenged in the state’s highest court.

Legislation could be filed next year to add exceptions to the abortion ban for rape or incest. But the ultimate shape of this legislation could depend on how the Kentucky Supreme Court rules.

Thayer predicted Wednesday that it would be “hard to add further exceptions” in the chamber.

“I wouldn’t call it a nonstarter, but I think it’s going to be a difficult sell,” he said after the event. “Our caucus is very pro-life. And nothing has changed in the way they feel about the issue.”

Last month, Kentucky voters rejected a ballot measure aimed at denying any constitutional protections for abortion. Abortion-rights supporters said voters took a stand against “government overreach” into personal medical decisions. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has denounced the trigger law as “extremist,” pointing to the lack of exceptions for rape and incest victims.

Thayer said he doesn’t view the constitutional amendment’s defeat in the general election as a mandate for more abortion exceptions.

“Because I think the constitutional amendment vote was political, where our side got outspent and outmaneuvered just about every step of the way,” he said Wednesday.

Nemes spoke in favor of creating more exceptions. “I think there’s a number of people in the House, including myself, who strongly support exceptions for rape and incest,” he said.

But there are other House members who “can’t countenance allowing the ending of a life, even if it was conceived in rape,” he added, reflecting the deep divisions that exist on the issue among Republicans.

Nemes said he also supports an exception when it’s determined that the fetus is not viable.

“The woman ought not have to carry the full 40 weeks if they know it’s not going to survive,” he said.

Thayer and Nemes said that any legislative action will hinge on the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling on whether the trigger law and a six-week abortion ban are constitutional. If the court blocks those laws, Kentuckians would be able to get abortions until they reach the 15th week of pregnancy. After that point, the procedure still would be prohibited under a different state law.

Next, Nemes outlined a strategy for medical marijuana legislation that would start the process in the Senate, where similar measures have died.

“It’s a question for the Senate now,” Nemes said. “The House has passed it twice with very strong majorities. There’s really no reason to delay the question by going through the House first. So we’re going to start on day one in the Senate. We’ve already started talking to senators.”

Nemes, a leading supporter of legalizing medical marijuana, called it “the right thing to do.” He recalled his encounter with a constituent who wept while confiding that relatives had brought medical cannabis into the state for his cancer-stricken wife. For the last few months of her life, it “allowed her to live,” the man told Nemes.

“Who the hell do we think we are to get in the way of that woman living at the end of her life,” Nemes said Wednesday.

Thayer, meanwhile, signaled his steadfast opposition to legalizing medical marijuana.

“I’m not going to vote for it,” he said. “If we have the votes for it in caucus, I’m not going to stand in its way. I don’t know if we have the votes for it or not.”

Beshear recently took executive action to allow Kentuckians suffering from debilitating conditions to legally possess small amounts of medical marijuana purchased in another state. The order is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2023. Beshear has said that his action is no substitute for outright legalization, which requires legislative approval.

The two prominent GOP lawmakers also mentioned changes to the state’s juvenile justice system and efforts to increase the state’s workforce participation rate as key issues awaiting lawmakers.

The 30-day session convenes in early January and will conclude at the end of March. The session will unfold against the political backdrop of a hotly contested race for governor.

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