By Bob Allen
The Kentucky Baptist Convention declared victory when the 2015 legislative session ended March 25 without voting on a bill to legalize medical marijuana.
Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood called on lawmakers to reject legislation to allow physicians to prescribe cannabis to treat disease or alleviate symptoms in a wide range of therapies.
The KBC Committee on Public Affairs highlighted Chitwood’s leadership on the issue in an article on the group’s website March 25.
“The success we had this year was, in large part, thanks to the stand Dr. Chitwood took on this issue,” said Ed Shemelya, coordinator for the National Marijuana Initiative, an organization that opposes legalization of pot. “I appreciate his courage and leadership on this issue.”
Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat who describes his religion as Southern Baptist, introduced legislation in January to make it legal for people to use marijuana in Kentucky for medical purposes. Lawmakers debated the issue, but ultimately both Stumbo’s bill and sister legislation in the Senate died March 24 when they failed to advance out of committee.
Medical use of marijuana is currently legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Legislation is pending in nine states, while bills this year failed to pass in seven more.
Scientists debate the safety and efficacy of marijuana and cannabis compounds for treating medical conditions ranging from terminal illness to epilepsy in children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana as a safe and effective drug for any indication but has approved one drug containing a synthetic version of a substance that is present in the marijuana plant.
“It makes no sense to bypass the FDA and allow Kentuckians to smoke marijuana under the guise that it is somehow medically beneficial,” Chitwood said in January. “If derivatives of marijuana are ever approved by the FDA to be safe and effective, by all means, we would support their legalization.
“Obviously that hasn’t happened yet. To the contrary, we know that marijuana is a gateway drug that often leads its users to even harder drugs that are claiming thousands upon thousands of lives through overdose.”
Later Chitwood posted a blog highlighting key issues before the legislature describing Stumbo’s bill as “irresponsible at best” and asking Kentucky Baptists to call a legislative message line and leave messages encouraging lawmakers “to let the FDA, not politicians, regulate medical drugs.”
With 2,400 churches and a combined membership of 750,000, the Kentucky Baptist Convention lays claim to being the state’s largest religious organization. About one in five of the state’s 4.4 million residents are Southern Baptist.
The demographics are even stronger in the statehouse, where nearly half the Senate and a third of the House identify themselves as Baptists.
Last year several newspapers gave strong Baptist influence in Frankfort credit for why the General Assembly can’t pass legislation to allow for casinos. Media also said Kentucky Baptists’ opposition to same-sex marriage helped pass a 2004 amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage and similar laws in three other states are constitutional. The court plans to hear oral arguments April 27 in several cases claiming gays have a constitutional right to wed. One involves a gay Baptist minister and his partner who have had a religious wedding ceremony that is not legally recognized in their home state.