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As people from across the region flock to neighboring states that are open to cannabis, Kentucky remains closed

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By Becca Schimmel
Ohio Valley Resources

Tourists come from far to see the 15-foot-tall Superman standing with his hands on his hips in downtown Metropolis, Illinois. The town of 6,000 people got its name a century before the movie Man of Steel, but the town still holds a Superman Festival every year to capitalize on the name itself.

Now, a new attraction has emerged in the Ohio River City after Illinois legalized medical and recreational cannabis in 2020. People from across the area regularly line up outside the only Metropolis dispensary, but outlaws still face criminal penalties if they use or possess The property is back home, whether they bought it legally or not.

Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois (Photo by Liam Niemeyer, total results)

Kentucky limits five states that have legalized marijuana in some form. But it remains illegal in all its forms in the Commonwealth. On the other hand, Illinois has completely legalized marijuana, as has Virginia. Both Ohio and West Virginia have legalized their medicinal use.

Many Western Kentuckians take the short ride across a narrow blue steel bridge connecting Bluegrass, Illinois, to sample produce.

Lori Nichols owns Riverview Mansion, a bed and breakfast located in a 140-year-old home in Metropolis, where guests are welcomed to treat the place like theirs. You see a lot of license plates from neighboring states around town but especially in the dispensary. Nichols said the infirmary’s presence in town has created some fun orders for weddings, too. She says one group asked if they could be “420” friendly.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s have a party and get higher out of a kite,'” it was, ‘This is our entertainment. “They didn’t drink, they had sweet tea and marijuana,” she said.

Back in Kentucky, marijuana is completely illegal, even if someone is driving across the state. Possession of drugs is a second degree misdemeanor and takes a maximum of 45 days in prison. Trafficking is also a misdemeanor if it’s less than eight ounces in size, but if it’s over, it’s a crime.

Local law enforcement agencies realize that popular attitudes toward marijuana have changed in recent years, but they still arrest people who use or possess the drug on the wrong side of the river, even if it is purchased legally.

The marijuana plant (Image via Wikimedia Commons, via OVR)

Marshall County, Kentucky’s mayor’s department regularly posts arrests on their Facebook page. In a post on December 28, 2021, the agency announced the arrest of “several bags of marijuana totaling approximately .13 grams, along with other items of paraphernalia and items that came from a marijuana dispensary in Metropolis, Illinois.”

In a January 10 post of this year, the department acknowledges that there are “mixed feelings when it comes to marijuana use” but warns citizens that the drug “remains illegal in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, making possession here a crime.”

Dave Bondrick, attorney with Edwards and Kotz in Paducah and former attorney general, says the infirmary is an easy 15-minute drive away. Kentuckians making the trip can still be stopped for drinking, but Bondrick said marijuana possession has effectively been decriminalized, with most people left with a fine or warning.

“You really don’t see people going to jail for having too much,” he said. “But yes, there are a lot of people who are spending time right now because of trafficking and a lot of people with criminal cases pending at the moment.”

Bondrick said the court’s attitude toward marijuana cases in Kentucky has changed drastically over the years. He said it is difficult to get convictions in such cases now because public opinion has changed.

“In this day and age, if you try a marijuana case, it’s hard to set a jury because there are a lot of people who would say ‘I’m not going to find anyone guilty,'” Bondrick said. “I certainly wouldn’t send anyone to prison.”

There are ripple effects of being arrested and charged with any kind of drug offense, even if it’s just a misdemeanor. Marcus Jackson works with the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union, and he says going to jail isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

The Brookport Bridge, which connects McKracken County, to Massac County, IL. (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Transportation)

“While I was doing criminal write-offs, we had individuals with marijuana-related charges who were banned from going to their children’s schools,” Jackson said.

Employers doing a background check will be able to tell that a person has been charged with possession and this can affect whether or not they get that job. The presence of workplace restrictions makes it difficult to sponsor your family or find the type of housing needed.

Advocates of marijuana point out that marijuana is not only for recreational use; The drug has medicinal benefits that states like Kentucky don’t officially recognize.

According to the Mayo Clinic, medical marijuana can help with conditions including severe chronic pain, nausea from cancer treatment, epilepsy, and more. Jackson suspects that the legalization of marijuana, especially for medical reasons, has brought many new people to Illinois.

“People from Kentucky actually moved to Metropolis because they had medical conditions that they needed marijuana for,” Jackson said. They would prefer not to take this opportunity to go back across that bridge and possibly face criminal charges.”

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has announced that he is exploring options on medical marijuana legalization with an executive order, though it’s unclear whether he has the authority to do so.

The Republican-led state legislature has repeatedly refused to pass a bill legalizing marijuana in any form, although this year lawmakers created a cannabis research center for further study.

Bashir has also set up a task force that will travel across the state to get public comment on the issue.

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