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Beshear signs historic bipartisan bills as reelection campaign looms

It's official, medical marijuana and sports betting are now legal in Kentucky.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear joined with Republican lawmakers as he signed historic measures Friday that will legalize medical marijuana and sports wagering in Kentucky, calling it an example of divided government working to get the “tough things” done that voters want.

Facing a reelection campaign that soon will intensify, the governor celebrated with GOP sponsors of the two bills that won final passage in the waning hours of this year's legislative session Thursday. 

Beshear, a long-running advocate for both measures, wasted no time in signing them.

He and lawmakers touted the bipartisan support both measures garnered. Democratic support was crucial since Republicans — who hold legislative supermajorities — were divided on the issues.

“It was said, can you — with a Democratic governor and a supermajority Republican legislature — get those tough things, important things, things that Kentuckians really want done," Beshear said. "And the answer is ‘absolutely.’ Sports betting and medical cannabis are now law here in Kentucky.”

But a reminder of the governor's strained relationship with the GOP-led legislature soon resurfaced.

After the bill signings, Beshear told reporters that his office will probably become involved in litigation over GOP-backed efforts he sees as weakening executive branch authority.

State Republican Party spokesperson Sean Southard said the governor was reverting to his “old ways, threatening lawsuits against the state legislature.” 

Beshear has waged repeated legal fights over legislation he said weakened authority in the governor's office.

Twelve candidates are competing for the Republican nomination for governor in the Bluegrass State’s May primary. Beshear’s bid for a second term is drawing national attention to see if the popular incumbent can win again in the Republican-trending state.

But it was all smiles and handshakes at the bill signings Friday. 

Beshear thanked the lawmakers for their work getting the medical cannabis and sports betting bills passed, after years of stiff resistance from some of their colleagues. The legislators, in return, thanked the governor for signing the measures.

Medical marijuana

In less than 24 hours after medical marijuana passed its last obstacle in the House with a 66 to 33 vote, the governor signed Senate Bill 47 into law.

Starting in January 2025, sick Kentuckians with at least one of the following six qualifying conditions -- cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy, chronic nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder -- will be able to buy and use medical marijuana in the commonwealth.

A person would need a medical marijuana card; however, smoking the drug would not be allowed.

“There are thousands and thousands of Kentuckians who just want to be and want to feel better. And this will help them with that,” said Republican Rep. Jason Nemes.

Republican Sen. Stephen West, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it was “probably one of the most-vetted bills in the history of the General Assembly.”

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services will be charged with implementing and overseeing the cultivation, distribution and sale of medical marijuana.

Until that happens, Beshear said his executive order signed in November will stay in effect, allowing sick Kentuckians to buy and bring back marijuana from other states where it's already legal.

His executive order has 21 qualifying conditions, and he said he wants to convince lawmakers to add more of those in the new law.

Beshear also hopes to convince the next General Assembly to make medical marijuana available sooner.

"My goal is to work as hard as we can to be ready on the regulatory side so that we can come to the General Assembly at the beginning of next year and say we're ready, let's go ahead and speed it up," he said.

Among the biggest advocates and loudest voices for medical marijuana have been Julie Cantwell and Kristin Wilcox of Kentucky Moms For Medical Cannabis.

Both Cantwell's son and Wilcox's daughter have severe cases of epilepsy.

"We helped get this done," Cantwell said.

"It's all worth it," Wilcox added.  "Great, happy ending to such a long, hard road."

Sports betting

The other measure will legalize, regulate and tax sports wagering in Kentucky. 

Supporters said it’s estimated to generate about $23 million a year in tax revenue and licensing fees. The measure will lead to regulation of an activity already entrenched in Kentucky, they said.

Republican Rep. Michael Meredith, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it will “move an industry that has been in the shadows and has existed in Kentucky for many, many years into the light — with a regulated and a consumer-protected industry.”

The bill will allow Kentucky’s horse racing tracks to be licensed as sports betting facilities for a $500,000 upfront fee and an annual renewal cost of $50,000.

Participating tracks could contract with up to three service providers for sports wagering services at the track itself, or through online sites and mobile applications. Service providers would have to pay $50,000 for an initial license and $10,000 a year to renew.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will regulate sports wagering operations.

The sports wagering measure generated strong grassroots support among Kentuckians that helped push it over the finish line, supporters said.

“I want to thank the overwhelming majority of Kentuckians, that said very loud every day, that this was entertainment and it was an option that Kentuckians demanded and deserved,” Beshear said.

The same applied to the medical cannabis bill, supporters said. Taking in the bill signing celebration after years of setbacks, Nemes said: “I can’t believe we’re here today.”

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