March 23, 2013

Legislative forum draws vocal advocates of medical marijuana

Two medical issues, marijuana and Medicaid expansion, held center stage Saturday at a raucous town hall meeting where residents were allowed to bring their concerns to state lawmakers from the Wichita area.

Two medical issues, marijuana and Medicaid expansion, held center stage Saturday at a raucous town hall meeting where residents were allowed to bring their concerns to state lawmakers from the Wichita area.

Legislators heard impassioned pleas from advocates of medical marijuana, those who used it to combat cancer and other debilitating conditions — and a few who served prison time for using it themselves or providing it for loved ones.

They also heard from a number of residents who urged them to support state acceptance of a Medicaid expansion that would extend health coverage to a group left in a gap created by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the national Affordable Care Act.

In contrast to most such meetings of the past, Saturday’s event drew a crowd of about 200 people and more than 50 spoke to the 13 lawmakers in attendance.

Attendees were greeted at the door of the Wichita State University Metropolitan Complex by costumed activists dressed as the Grim Reaper and the Statue of Liberty, carrying signs protesting Gov. Sam Brownback.

Nearby, musicians performed the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land,” which opponents of corporate influence over government have recently revived as a protest song.

In the meeting, the loudest ovations came for speakers advocating for a hearing on long-stalled bills that would allow use of marijuana with a doctor’s prescription.

“I am a cancer survivor,” said Sharon Gordon of Udall, secretary of the marijuana reform group Kansas for Change. “I was hesitant to use the addictive drugs that doctors prescribed for me to deal with the chemotherapy, and when I did use them, I found out I was allergic to them, developing rashes like poison ivy all over my upper body. So I found relief only with medical marijuana.”

But when her husband began growing it for her at their nursery and farm business, “he was arrested and imprisoned for six months while I was still recovering, leaving me without a caregiver,” she said.

“It is the height of hypocrisy that either the federal government or any state is still continuing to prosecute and imprison patients and their caregivers who seek the proven benefits of medical marijuana.”

Before his incarceration, her husband, Mike Morton, had been active in Democratic politics, serving as chairman of the Cowley County Democrats and the party representative for the 4th Congressional District.

He said he knew the risks when he started growing but did what he had to do to help his wife.

“It was one thing I could do and it was the only thing,” he said. “I had just lost my daughter to a brain tumor and I wasn’t real concerned about the consequences, although I was aware. The world understands what the judge and the Legislature have not understood so far and you have the power to change that.”

Most of the lawmakers sat silently when they and other marijuana supporters spoke.

The notable exception was Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who has undergone chemotherapy for lupus and has tried for years to get a medical marijuana bill considered at the Capitol.

“We talk about the hypocrisy, it’s hypocrisy when someone introduces a bill because their constituents want this bill, and the state Legislature doesn’t even give it the time to even listen to, that’s hypocrisy,” Finney said. “So I tell you, there’s no shame in my game. I support it. I continue to support it and it’s up to you to keep advocating to get it heard.

“Here are your legislators, they are the ones who can make it happen, put ’em to work.”

Several other speakers argued for more conventional approaches to medicine, calling on lawmakers to support an expansion of Medicaid proposed as part of the implementation of Obamacare.

The national health plan originally envisioned expanding Medicaid to cover all Americans whose income falls below 138 percent of the poverty line.

However, the Supreme Court decision that upheld most of Obamacare left that decision to the states, leaving a coverage gap for those who make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive subsidized coverage in health exchanges that are being developed.

To close that gap, the Obama administration has offered to fund Medicaid expansion fully for the first three years before tapering down longterm support to 90 percent.

The decision of whether to accept rests with each state’s governor.

Nancy Ross, of Wichita, was one of several speakers urging the lawmakers to support the deal.

“We rank 33rd in the nation for uninsured individuals,” she said. “That’s one-twelfth of our population that is without health insurance.

“When we don’t have people insured we just shift the cost to other programs and we pay for it as citizens,” she added.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, responded “we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns as we implement Obamacare.”

She said former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now federal secretary of health and humans services “is sending down a new set of regulations every week.

“We are trying to determine what our options are for covering the uninsured here in Kansas and if there’s something we can do.”

Two Democratic lawmakers, Wichita Reps. Pat Sloop and Carolyn Bridges, drew cheers when they announced they support expanding Medicaid.

“Many of us are hearing you,” Sloop said. “I really get it and I really hope you will continue your advocacy for expanding Medicaid.”

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