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Bipartisanship abounds as Beshear signs bills legalizing medical marijuana and sports betting

Democratic governor and Republican sponsors say both sides helped pass legislation

BY: – MARCH 31, 2023 12:59 PM

FRANKFORT — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear called Friday an “amazing” day as he signed two pieces of legislation — legalizing medical marijuana and sports betting — that were passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. With legislative sponsors and advocates gathered around him in the Capitol Rotunda, Beshear signed Senate Bill 47 and House Bill 551.

Both bills received their final floor votes Thursday night, the last time lawmakers met before adjourning until next January. Beshear told reporters after signing the bills that the bipartisanship behind the legislation was clear and showed that his administration can work with the General Assembly.

“Today’s pretty amazing. We passed two pieces of legislation that took both Democrats and Republicans — would not have passed without them — people coming together to do what’s right for the people of Kentucky,” the governor said.

The medical marijuana law does not go into effect until 2025 to give the Cabinet for Health and Family Services time to establish regulations and licensing. Kentucky will be joining 37 other states in legalizing medical marijuana. Next session, lawmakers are expected to debate amendments to the new law. Beshear thanked bill sponsors as well as advocates for medical marijuana, as they “have made the difference” in generating support for the legislation by sharing their stories.

Beshear at the start of the year signed an executive order to set criteria for Kentuckians with certain medical conditions to access medical cannabis in small amounts. Legalization came after about five years of “a hard-fought legislative effort,” the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, said on Friday.

West thanked two of his constituents, Eric and Michelle Crawford, vocal proponents for the legalization of medical marijuana. Eric told a House committee on Thursday cannabis made him “comfortable” after living with injuries from a car crash more than two decades ago.

“This bill is how the legislative process should work,” West said Friday. “I represent Mason County, Kentucky. Eric and Michelle are my constituents. When I first started, I had no idea. I did not want to be involved in medical marijuana. I had no idea what the issue was all about. They had a resolution passed at the Mason County Fiscal Court, and they got me involved and I listened.”

Beshear also signed HB 551 legalizing sports betting in Kentucky.

“This was really a team effort,” primary sponsor Rep. Michael Merdith, R-Oakland, told the gathering in the Rotunda. “It took House leadership on the Republican side. It took Democratic House leadership. It took leadership on the Republican side of the Senate and leadership on the Democratic side of the Senate, and it took your efforts and your staff’s efforts to get this done on the very last day of this session,” Meredith told Beshear.

An amendment added by Meredith dedicates about 2.5% of the annual tax revenue from sports betting to addressing gambling addiction. The representative has previously said the legislation is anticipated to bring in $23 million annually to the state.

While Republicans at the bill-signing joined Beshear in praising the bipartisan effort, the Republican Party of Kentucky issued a statement striking a different note.

The RPK statement referred to Beshear’s answer to reporters about whether he would get involved in a lawsuit challenging the ban on “gray machine” gaming passed this session.

“Moments after he took credit for two Republican pieces of legislation he had nothing to do with, Andy Beshear was back to his old ways, threatening lawsuits against the state legislature,” RPK spokesman Sean Southard said. “His legal threats against the People’s House proves how truly irrelevant he is to the policymaking process. He can’t move or stop legislation; he must sue to get his way. It’s time we had a Republican Governor who will work with our supermajorities in the legislature, instead of one who threatens and sues them.”

On the “gray gaming” ban lawsuit, Beshear said: ““I’m typically in enough lawsuits, so we’ll see how that proceeds,” before adding that he trusted the courts to “do the right thing.”

“My guess is that we will see some litigation that involves the governor’s office coming out of this session,” the governor said. “We did have some bills that violate the separation of powers as to the judiciary as well as the governor’s office itself.”

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Democratic Party put out a statement touting Beshear’s leadership in passing the legislation.

“Because Governor Beshear exerted the leadership and political pressure that he did, the General Assembly passed two key legislative priorities that are going to pay dividends for Kentuckians. This is a big deal for our Commonwealth,” said KDP Chair Colmon Elridge. “People who deserve relief will now have legal access to medical cannabis, and with the legalization of sports betting we will stop seeing millions of dollars in revenue leave the borders of our state each year. These two policies have been proposed in Kentucky for years and years — under Governor Beshear’s leadership we finally got them done.”


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