"We ought to be fighting drugs. We've got a huge heroin problem in this state. Northern Kentucky is the epicenter of heroin. I don't like the message that it sends," McConnell said after speaking at an event in Lexington.
Kentucky's state and federal officials have softened their stance toward the cannabis plant in recent years, mirroring a trend across the country. The state legislature passed a bill earlier this year allowing doctors at two state research universities to prescribe cannabidiol to treat patients. Supporters note that cannabidiol, which comes from the cannabis plant, has been effective in treating seizures in children.
The federal farm bill that passed earlier this year allowed Kentucky farmers to begin growing a commercial hemp crop for the first time in decades. The crop was delayed after the Drug Enforcement Administration detained a shipment of hemp seeds, an action both McConnell and Grimes publicly criticized. Earlier this week, about 12 farmers harvested 15 acres worth of hemp from those seeds.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has only trace amounts of THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high.
And state legislators have held multiple public hearings about legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, including having one hearing on the impact medical marijuana could have in treating soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes. Two states, Washington and Colorado, allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use. In her radio interview, Grimes mentioned the economic benefits in Colorado when explaining why she favors having a discussion about legalizing marijuana.
Colorado has collected $30 million in taxes on both recreational and medical marijuana sales since Jan. 1, lower than some estimates and but higher than others in a first-of-its-kind market.
"I think it's worthwhile to bring the experts together and talk about the reclassification," Grimes said.
But McConnell told WVLK radio in Lexington on Thursday that legalizing marijuana would not help the nation's drug problem because it sends the message that "we don't really care about this."
"You begin to sort of send the message that we're giving up," he said. "Then one thing leads to another and pretty soon you completely transform your society in a way that I think certainly most Kentuckians would not agree with."