Government & Politics

Medical marijuana hopes withering in Kansas as Missouri gets ready for rollout

Lisa Sublett has been pushing for broad legalization of medical marijuana for years in Kansas, remaining optimistic despite little movement in the state legislature.

Sublett, the founder of an advocacy group called Bleeding Kansas, isn’t ready to give up on getting it done during the current legislative session, but said this week that it’s a long-shot.

“I don’t know if there’s a chance this year,” Sublett said. “We are seriously running out of time.”

Advocates saw momentum for the movement in November, when Missouri voters approved medical marijuana by a comfortable margin and Kansans elected a Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, who said she would support a “well-regulated” program.

But most of the legislative session has now come and gone with little action on several medical marijuana bills.

Kelly’s election reset the state government’s balance and during her first few months in office, most of the Republican-controlled legislature’s time has been spent staking out positions on core issues like taxes and school funding. As of Wednesday, only 10 bills total had made it to Kelly’s desk.

Most of the legislative business is slated to wrap up next week, with a short return in May to focus on passing the final budget for the year.

Sublett and others are already laying the groundwork for next year, pushing for a legislative committee to study medical marijuana over the summer and produce recommendations before the 2020 session starts in January.

“The depth and breadth — it’s too hard to try and cover in two days and especially amid the chaos of session,” Sublett said. “I hope we get an interim committee to in-depth study the issue and give us a chance to answer objections and concerns with actual data and to bring in experts.”

So far the only bill to get a vote in either chamber was one to provide a legal defense in court for medical use of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, with up to 5 percent THC, which is the ingredient in cannabis that produces a “high.” The Kansas House of Representatives approved House Bill 2244 with an 89-35 vote Wednesday.

It’s another incremental step toward full legalization (Kansas legislators approved the sale of CBD oil with zero THC last year), but Sublett said it’s largely symbolic. It doesn’t legalize production of the oil within the state and federal law only allows for interstate sales of CBD derived from “hemp” — a form of cannabis with 0.3 percent or less THC.

Sublett’s group introduced a bill for much broader legalization of production, sales and use of medical marijuana, similar to Missouri’s new law.

It has not gotten a hearing.

Kansas Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat from Baldwin City, sponsored a similar bill that would have given U.S. military veterans exclusive access to medical marijuana for the first 60 days.

Holland said that would be a way to ease the state into the program without being overwhelmed by pent-up demand, as well as a “salute to our vets.”

“It’s a way to reinforce ‘here’s a very easily identifiable group of Kansans who have given their bodies in the service of America and some of them are broken and they’re looking to medical cannabis as a way to treat their maladies,’” Holland said.

Holland’s bill got a committee hearing, but not a vote.

Like past legislation, it was opposed by doctors who said the risks and benefits of marijuana use haven’t been sufficiently studied and cannabis products shouldn’t be allowed to circumvent the normal Food and Drug Administration approval process.

It was also opposed by law enforcement groups, who say it would be nearly impossible to keep legal medical marijuana from being diverted for illegal use.

“You’ll never get a green light from the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) and law enforcement on any of this stuff,” Holland said, while adding that his bill provides a more secure marijuana supply than other bills that allow patients to grow their own.

The same objections have been raised in other states, including Missouri. But voters there opted to plow ahead. The state’s health department is making rules so that the first patient applications can go out in June and the first dispensary licenses granted by the end of the year.

Voters in Oklahoma did the same last June and a petition drive is ramping up to get medical marijuana on the ballot next year in Nebraska. If successful, Kansas would be an island of prohibition, since Colorado was one of the first states in the country to legalize.

It’s harder to bring a ballot initiative straight to voters in Kansas than in most states. But Holland said each one that passes in other states increases the pressure he and other legislators get from constituents to back legalization.

“Once again Kansas is sticking out,” Holland said. “People are very cognizant of that. ... It’s growing from a ‘Gee, that would be nice to have access to,’ to boy they’re demanding it and they’re starting to get really frustrated Kansas isn’t keeping up with the rest of the nation.”

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.
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