Lawson Spann, Quarles spar on medical marijuana, GMOs at Ky. Farm Bureau forum

10/06/2015 04:20 PM

Candidates vying to become Kentucky’s next agriculture commissioner differed on the controversial subject of medical marijuana Tuesday during a forum hosted by Kentucky Farm Bureau.

Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, in her opening statement at KFB’s “Measure the Candidates” forum, voiced her support for medicinal cannabis, saying Kentuckians suffering from ailments like glaucoma, epilepsy and cancer shouldn’t have to seek relief in other states that allow the illicit drug’s prescription.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana since 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“A doctor-patient relationship should guide the decision on whether someone is prescribed medical marijuana for a very specific illness,” Lawson Spann said.

Republican Rep. Ryan Quarles, however, said legalizing medical marijuana would imperil the state’s young industrial hemp industry and Kentucky’s status as a “clean atmosphere” for hemp growers.

“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, and in fact folks in Colorado right now who are wanting to invest in Kentucky are moving from Colorado to Kentucky because it’s a clean atmosphere and they’re not co-mingled with its cousin,” Quarles said at the forum. “So it’s important that if we do support an alternative crop, we listen to the industry needs.”

Medical marijuana has been a nonstarter in recent legislative sessions despite the General Assembly taking steps at cannabis legalization with industrial hemp and cannabidiol.

Lawson Spann would likely find opposition to medical marijuana from law enforcement entities, as Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer voiced his opposition to the legalization of industrial hemp during the 2013 legislative session.

She brushed aside a question on whether she has had any conversations with law enforcement on her proposal for medical cannabis. The issue, she said, “is about our families” and “our struggling Kentuckians that are suffering from cancer, glaucoma and the epileptic seizures,” particularly children.

Younger patients dealing with chronic seizures provided the impetus for lawmakers to approve cannabidiol treatment in 2014.

“As a new mom, I can’t imagine what those families are going through, and why should we tell our Kentuckians that are going through those hard times that they should have to travel to one of the other 21 states that this is offered?” Lawson-Spann said.

“I believe we should have legalized medical marijuana here in Kentucky, and I believe it should be between the doctor and the patient.”

The candidates also offered opposing stances on whether food products containing genetically-modified organisms should be labelled and a statewide indoor smoking ban.

Lawson Spann said she would like to see GMO products labelled on grocery shelves while Quarles said such a measure would unnecessarily confuse consumers.

Differentiating between GMO and non-GMO products is “a passion” of hers, Lawson Spann said. She mentioned the matter as one of her priorities in opening remarks.

“I’m a mom,” she said in response to a question on the subject. “I want to know what is in the food that I’m feeding my son. Kentucky consumers deserve to know if the food has been genetically modified, but … I also know that we’ve got farmers who grow both GMO and non-GMO, and I’m open for free trade.”

Quarles countered that science hasn’t shown that GMO foods make consumers sick. Mandatory GMO labeling “would cause confusion” as well, he said.

“It would make it harder for consumers to understand what the difference is between products which are perfectly safe, and there’s been no study that says GMO foods have made anyone sick, and if we want to feed the world with a growing population, we’ve got to embrace science.”

A statewide indoor smoking ban has been proposed in the legislature for the past five sessions, with House Bill 145 earning the cause’s first vote in the state House during this year’s session. The measure passed 51-46 but did not receive a committee hearing in the Senate.

Such proposals have been staunchly opposed by tobacco companies, which have spent heavily in lobbying efforts against the bills.

Quarles, who voted against HB 145, said he believes the matter should be left to local governments.

“The local option is working in Kentucky,” he said. “My district is primarily rural, but the majority of the population operates underneath an anti-smoking ban because they did it at the local level. It’s also important that we respect the property rights of business owners to make that sort of conclusion on their own.

“And I think it’s important that we support our tobacco industry, but I do realize this is a controversial issue in Kentucky.”

Lawson Spann said she backs Kentucky’s tobacco industry, but she added that she doesn’t “want smoking to be a part of what my son breathes.”

“I support our tobacco farmers,” she said. “I support folks that decide that they want to smoke, but do I want my child to have to breathe the smoke in an indoor, closed place? No.”

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Jean-Marie Lawson Spann as Jean Marie Lawson-Spann.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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