The Republican candidate for governor of Kentucky favors legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. In an unusual role reversal, his Democratic opponent is attacking him for it.


Happy Monday morning from Richmond, Ky., where the governor’s race, just one week from tomorrow, is a true toss-up. I’m crisscrossing the state talking to voters and trailing the candidates. During a debate at Eastern Kentucky University last night, some of the biggest fireworks came over whether to allow medical marijuana.

“There is unequivocal medical evidence … that there are benefits for those with cancer and epilepsy,” said Republican Matt Bevin. “It should be prescribed like any other prescription drug.”

Democrat Jack Conway, running as a tough-on-crime attorney general, touted his endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police and fretted about “a lost generation” of young people to narcotics, particularly prescription pain pills.

“I don’t want to hear from some hipsters out in Hawaii saying Kentucky needs medical marijuana,” Conway said. “Because, if you have medical marijuana, there’s going to be more of it. Chances are there will be more accidents on our roads by young kids because there’s more of it. If we need it, the medical community has to come convince me. … And I haven’t heard from any of them.”

“Medical marijuana is the only medicine I can think of that would be prescribed in joints,” Conway quipped, adding that he’s supported cannabidiol oil to treat seizures. “When I’ve met addicts … it always seems like it started with marijuana at an early age.”

Bevin pushed back on the suggestion that giving “a kid with terminal brain cancer” access to medical marijuana is going to make him into a junkie or pusher. But he also defended himself, insisting that he would “never, ever” support recreational use of marijuana.

“We’re on the campus of a university,” the Republican said. Addressing the students in the audience of one thousand, he asked: “Is it not already easy for you to find this on the streets? Come on! Who are we kidding? The only people who can’t get it are the people who abide by the law!”

One of the reasons the debate over marijuana is so interesting is that it does not cut neatly across party lines. Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, the Democratic candidate for Agriculture commissioner – a very powerful job in the Bluegrass State – is airing a TV commercial right now touting herself as “the only candidate” in the race who supports medical marijuana “to ease the suffering of cancer patients.” Her Republican rival for Agriculture commissioner opposes medical marijuana on the grounds that the state’s burgeoning industrial hemp industry is against it. “If you talk to hemp producers, the ones who are already investing in our state, they do not want to be co-mingled with its cousin,” Ryan Quarles reportedly said during a recent candidate forum.

The back-and-forth in Kentucky underscores the extent to which pot has become a big issue in every state. The boundaries of the debate look likely to be pushed further in 2016, when the recreational use of marijuana is being put to the test in states like California and Nevada, and possibly Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Just next week, in their off-year election, Ohio voters will vote on Issue 3, which would legalize pot, but a measure to negate it is also on the same ballot. Look for a growing legalization push across the country, especially in states that have already lowered punishments for using it. (USA Today has a map to track where the fight is paying out here.)

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