Editor’s note: Additional coauthors of this blog post are Jennifer Chubinski, director of community research, and Ann Barnum, senior program officer, substance use disorders, at The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati.

In the United States, eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. Six states have defeated legislation to legalize marijuana.

During the 2013 legislative session, the Kentucky Senate also considered legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. According to the 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll (KHIP), 45 percent of Kentucky adults said voters should decide whether marijuana is legal. However, allowing voters in the Bluegrass state to decide the issue would complicate the current (prescription) drug approval and regulation process.

Many Kentucky adults think voters should decide whether marijuana is legal. Most favor marijuana as medicine; other uses for marijuana are not popular, though.

KHIP asked several questions about whom Kentucky adults think should decide whether marijuana should be legalized in Kentucky for medical and/or recreational purposes. While many polls have asked about the legalization of marijuana, the authors do not know of other polls that have asked ordinary people if they should be able to vote on marijuana legalization.

More than four in ten adults (45 percent) say voters should decide if marijuana is legal. Six percent of respondents say that physicians should decide whether marijuana is legal, even though that was not one of the possible responses to the original survey question.

A majority of Kentuckians favors allowing residents to buy and use marijuana for medical purposes if it is recommended by their doctor (78 percent). However, most oppose allowing residents to buy and use marijuana under any circumstances (55 percent) or for recreational purposes (69 percent). Younger respondents are more likely than older ones to favor allowing residents to buy and use marijuana under any circumstances and for recreational uses.

Kentuckians’ Opinion about Marijuana Use*

In Favor  Opposed
Medical Marijuana 78%  19%
Any Use of Marijuana 38%  55%
Recreational Use of Marijuana 26%  69%

*Does not add to 100% because “don’t know” is not included.

If Kentucky voters were to decide, the regulation process would be altered.

If Kentucky voters were to decide that marijuana for medical use should be legal, the current drug approval and regulation process would be bypassed. Currently, drug companies in the United States must first have their drug tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they sell it. The company first sends the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) evidence to prove the drug is safe and effective. A team of CDER chemists, pharmacologists, scientists, and physicians review the findings from these tests. If the review verifies that the drug’s health benefits outweigh the acknowledged risks, the drug is approved. States that have legalized marijuana for medical use have each created a different process for monitoring and regulating marijuana, but these processes are not as stringent as the process in place at the federal level for other prescription drugs.

Bill in Kentucky Senate to Establish Medical Marijuana Program

In Kentucky, using marijuana for recreational or medical purposes is illegal. During the 2013 legislative session, Senate Bill 11 proposed a system for the use of marijuana as medicine. The bill would have established how individuals could obtain and use marijuana as medicine based on their medical needs and a doctor’s approval. The bill also would have established reporting and review procedures for the Kentucky Department for Public Health, local and state governments, and law enforcement agencies that would differ from FDA regulations. The bill died in the Judiciary Committee in March 2013.

Legalized Marijuana for Medical Use in Other States

States where marijuana as medicine is legal, such as Colorado, report that marijuana for medical use may make the drug more accessible to young people. The recent article “Commentary: Medical Marijuana—Time for Parents to Step In”  notes that marijuana is now more widely used among teenagers than cigarettes are.  Written by Ken Winters and Amelia Arria of the Treatment Research Institute and published on the online news service Join Together, the article cited a Colorado study that showed 74 percent of a sample of teenagers who were receiving drug addiction treatment reported they had used marijuana that was prescribed for someone else’s medical use.

Recently, the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine published an article on a survey of Colorado doctors about marijuana for medical use; 520 physicians responded. Only 19 percent of doctors recommended prescribing marijuana as medicine, while 46 percent opposed prescribing it. Ninety-two percent of physicians surveyed said that more medical data and information are needed for family physicians to make decisions about marijuana for medical purposes.

About the Kentucky Health Issues Poll

The 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll (KHIP) was funded by The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. KHIP was conducted September 20–October 14, 2012, by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. A random sample of 1,680 adults from throughout Kentucky was interviewed by telephone. This included 1,360 landline interviews and 320 cell phone interviews.

In 95 of 100 cases, the statewide estimates will be accurate to ±2.5 percent. There are other sources of variation inherent in public opinion studies, such as nonresponse, question wording, or context effects that can introduce error or bias. For more information about the Kentucky Health Issues Poll, please visit https://www.healthfoundation.org/kentucky-health-issues-poll or http://www.healthy-ky.org/presentations-reports/reports/kentucky-health-issues-poll.