Price on Politics: Ryan Quarles’ medical marijuana announcement

Price Wilborn, Commentary Editor

On the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol on the morning of Feb. 28, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture and Republican candidate for governor Ryan Quarles announced his intention to legalize medical cannabis within a year of being elected governor.

In an op-ed emailed to supporters on the same day as the announcement, Quarles wrote that “now is the time to legalize medical marijuana in a way that works for all of Kentucky. And as a farmer, former legislator, and the sitting Agriculture Commissioner, I have the experience and know-how to help pass a responsible medical marijuana law into law in my first year as Governor.”

In his op-ed, Quarles outlined three commitments; getting government “out of the way” because the decision to use medical marijuana “is a medical decision between a patient and a doctor” that should be made without government involvement; ensuring medical cannabis is grown in Kentucky by Kentucky farmers; and not taxing Kentucky families, making sure the medical cannabis program is “financially independent.”

Throughout the op-ed, Quarles attacks Governor Andy Beshear on the issue. Quarles writes that “[the governor’s] executive orders are nothing more than temporary half-measures” and that Beshear is “leaving Kentucky’s farmers out in the cold.”

Quarles also attacks President Joe Biden, saying that “as soon as the Biden Administration’s FDA gets out of the way, the hemp comeback will begin.” Quarles also writes that “it is past time for President Biden and the FDA to do their jobs and give us a path forward for cannabinoids like CBD.”

These attacks on Beshear and Biden are important for Quarles to attract Republican voters. Even though Governor Beshear is the most popular Democratic governor in the nation, there are many on the right that disagree with many of his policies and values. His COVID-19 actions and policies are a key example of this. Even though Quarles’ plan is not a detailed one, nor does it have great difference to Beshear’s efforts, the attacks on Beshear give the Quarles “plan” legitimacy with Republican voters.

In every presidential election since 2000, Kentucky has voted red. In 2020, Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by nearly 30%. Joe Biden is unpopular in Kentucky. Quarles can appeal to the Republican base that Donald Trump mobilized in 2016 by attacking Biden head-on. In doing this, Republican voters will vote for Quarles because he wants to fight Biden, providing more Republican resistance to Biden-Harris policies that they feel are hurting them and their livelihoods, even though policies by a Kentucky governor have little to no impact on federal policies.

Quarles’ support for medical cannabis puts him in a strong position against other Republican candidates in the GOP primary and against Andy Beshear in a possible head-to-head match up in the general election. According to the governor in a June 2022 press release, 90% of Kentuckians support legalizing medical cannabis. Drawing some voters away from Beshear gives Quarles a greater chance at making it through the primaries and winning the general elections.

None of the other GOP candidates for governor have come out in support of legalizing medical marijuana. This distances Quarles from the rest, positioning him as a more moderate alternative that still holds true to Kentucky Republican values. GOP voters who are unsure about the future of a party that is closer and closer to the far-right values of President Donald Trump can see Quarles as his own man and as a candidate that is not beholden to the former president and the modern Republican Party.

I wrote about my experiences with the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee in January. What I saw were a majority of Kentuckians that supported legalization not because they wanted to get high but because they just wanted to feel better. Kentuckians have shown support for Andy Beshear because of actions he has taken on the issue.

Quarles announcing his support for legalization provides an alternative for voters who disagree with Beshear in other areas. Republicans and Democrats alike support medical cannabis and Quarles supporting it, too, attracts Republicans who would have voted for Beshear to see action on legalization.

Quarles’ plan has few visible differences than Beshear’s however. Quarles attacks the governor for his “temporary half measures” of executive orders, but he leaves out the fact that these executive orders were the only way Beshear could make moves on legalizing medical cannabis. Republican leaders in the Kentucky Senate Leadership like Senate President Robert Stivers and Majority Leader Damon Thayer have blocked the chamber from even hearing medical cannabis bills, killing them before they reach the governor’s desk. It has been Republicans who have prevented substantive action from taking place, the Democrats and Beshear.

Quarles’ plan gives Kentucky Republicans an opportunity to save themselves politically while preventing Beshear from getting success on the issue, too. Republicans can use Quarles’ pledge to legalize medical marijuana to block passage in the current legislative session, pushing it off for yet another year. This prevents Beshear from getting a huge political win just prior to the election. A win like this would give Kentuckians more reason to vote for Beshear, which Republicans want to prevent.

Instead, they can use the Republican majority in the state legislature to give a new Governor Quarles an early and easy bipartisan legislative win. This gives Quarles the opportunity to build on Andy Beshear’s record-breaking economic growth, claiming some of it as his own.

Quarles’ support for legalizing medical cannabis gives Quarles a stronger chance of beating Beshear by supporting something majorities of Kentuckians have voiced support for while giving him the chance to work with Republicans to give him a win.

This requires him to win the election first, something that he may or may not be able to do. Quarles has the best shot at winning against the sitting governor, but the fact is that, on this issue, Beshear has made access to medical marijuana easier, despite the obstacles Kentucky Senate Republicans have placed in his way.

Quarles has attempted to take the medical marijuana issue away from Beshear, and he could have success in this, but the governor’s actions have already drawn the support of many Kentuckians that could be hard to take away.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.

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