Democrat Adam Edelen calls for decriminalizing marijuana possession in Kentucky

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen called for eliminating criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana Monday, but stopped short of backing full legalization of recreational marijuana.

Under Edelen’s plan, possession of marijuana would be reduced from a misdemeanor criminal charge to a civil charge, similar to a speeding ticket. People could be charged up to $100 for possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana.

Kentucky would be the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana (10 states have legalized it outright).

“We need modern laws that reflect our modern world and that means that no one should be held in jail for weeks or be forced into a criminal justice system that limits their potential just for having a small bag of marijuana,” Edelen said in a news release. “It’s bad policy and the time has come to change the way we treat marijuana.”

Edelen did not say whether he supported decriminalizing growing marijuana for personal use or whether he supported lowering the penalty for possession of drug paraphernalia and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

Edelen’s campaign said more than 11,000 Kentuckians were convicted of possession of marijuana last year and pointed to a 2013 study that showed black Kentuckians are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

All three major Democratic candidates — Edelen, Attorney General Andy Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins — have said they support legalizing medicinal marijuana (33 states and the District of Columbia have already done this), but Edelen is the first to support decriminalization.

Beshear’s campaign said he supports a ballot measure for the legalization of medicinal marijuana but stopped short of supporting decriminalizing marijuana.

“Criminal justice reform is important to Andy, and he thinks that people shouldn’t have to serve jail time just for the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Eric Hyers, Beshear’s campaign manager. “Andy is also committed to rooting out the bias and discrimination that exists in our criminal justice system, which leads to disproportionately high incarceration rates for people of color.”

A spokesman for Rocky Adkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Possession of marijuana is the lowest level of crime — a Class B misdemeanor — and can result in up to 45 days in prison. The penalty rises if the person intends to distribute the marijuana, but a first offense isn’t a felony unless the person is trying to sell more than eight ounces.

Marijuana is often trafficked in 1/8 of an ounce or about 3.5 grams. A 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that a typical marijuana cigarette (or joint) contains about .32 grams of marijuana.