This Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016 file photo shows medical marijuana packaging on display at Vireo Health drug dispensary in White Plains, N.Y. Twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia have enabled the use of marijuana to treat PTSD, and the number has doubled just in the last two years amid increasingly visible advocacy from veterans' groups.

Advocates mount push for medical marijuana bill in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Supporters of legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky are touting its potential as a viable alternative to ease the state’s addiction woes from opioid painkillers.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes joined other advocates at a state Capitol event on Thursday to promote a medical marijuana legalization bill introduced this week in the state House (House Bill 166).

Related: Recreational marijuana legalization bill introduced in Kentucky by GOP senator

Advocates included Eric Crawford, who had a plastic bag filled with prescription bottles in his lap as he sat in a wheelchair. He suffered spinal cord injuries in a vehicle crash 24 years ago, and many of the prescriptions were to combat pain and relax muscles.

Crawford, who lives in Mason County, said Kentuckians who want to use medical marijuana should not have to fear being treated as criminals.

“It’s not for everybody to run out and get high,” he said. “You’re helping sick people.”

The bill resulted from work by a task force that Grimes led. The group heard “heartbreaking” stories from people whose suffering could be eased by medical marijuana, she said.

“Kentuckians are begging for an alternative to opioids and prescriptions,” Grimes said. “The natural remedy is what they are asking for to help with their illness and ailments.”

Kentucky continues to be ravaged by opioid-related addictions. Kentucky had more than 1,400 drug overdose deaths in 2016, a 39 percent increase from three years ago.

Grimes, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2014, noted that 29 states have legalized medical marijuana. Grimes called on the Republican-led legislature to make Kentucky the next state to join the list.

“Today is a real gut check for every member of the General Assembly,” she said. “Will they stand up for the citizens of Kentucky or are they merely going to sit in silence?”

The legalization bill’s lead sponsor is Rep. John Sims Jr., D-Flemingsburg.

Medicinal marijuana advocates face a tough challenge. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer later predicted such a bill wouldn’t garner enough votes to pass the Senate.

“I am a ‘no’ on medicinal marijuana at this time, pending further scientific information that could change my mind,” said Thayer, R-Georgetown.

“There’s still a stigma around marijuana as a gateway drug,” he added.

Kentucky’s ban on medical marijuana survived an initial test in court last year, when a circuit court judge ruled that the state has a good reason to “curtail citizens’ possession of a narcotic, hallucinogenic drug.”

The ruling came after three people sued the governor and the attorney general and asked a judge to throw out the ban because “denying sick people safe medicine” is unjust.