Legal medical marijuana in Kansas? Unlikely for now

03/03/2014 4:57 PM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

There is zero chance that the Kansas Legislature will legalize medical cannabis soon.

Even Gail Finney says so, and she’s the House member from Wichita who introduced a bill this year to legalize it.

And she says it will fail again. This time.

But 20 states now allow medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington legalized even recreational pot.

New budget numbers predict the marijuana taxes could add more than $100 million a year to Colorado state tax revenue, far more than earlier estimates, according to the New York Times.

Colorado legalized recreational pot beginning Jan. 1. It changed the debate in Kansas, and put more pressure on cops and legislators here. It also inspired Kansans who advocate for medical marijuana.

It is absurd to stigmatize medical cannabis, marijuana advocates say, when legal alcohol use kills and maims far more people. Absurd also to deny relief to the sick and the dying.

But many police say it’s not just about alcohol versus pot anymore. They’ve seen more meth and prescription pills on Kansas streets, creating added layers of harm – including more wobbly drivers on the roads – and they don’t want to add another layer.

One thing they agree on: There’s now more Colorado pot coming to Kansas, making the debate more complicated, more strident, and even more wacky.

Cannabis tourists

In a conservative state concerned about creating jobs, a Salina entrepreneur named Bart Allen used the Colorado law to create a new kind of prairie tourism.

Allen said his wife got sick a few years ago. He researched how to help, which led to medical marijuana. Now he runs a business in Salina, driving “tourists” from Kansas to Colorado.

“I am just trying to help sick people,” he said.

He’s taken calls lately from national media wanting to ride along and quote him as he ferries customers to hotels and pot shops in Colorado.

“I’ve heard around town that some say I’m some sort of Al Capone,” he said. He laughed, but not happily. Some people in Salina avoid him. “I’m a pariah,” he said.

He drives Kansans to Colorado in a 12-passenger Mercedes-Benz van, about 45 people so far. All his tourists suffer from ailments, Allen said.

“Cancer pain. ADHD, PTSD, lack of appetite from chemotherapy, tendinitis, anger issues, arthritis,” he said.

Bob and George, who wanted to be identified only by first names, said their trips with Allen were informative – a tour of growers and stores – and not a pot party. Both said the trips gave them hope that someday they won’t have to buy illegal pot in Kansas as they do now.

Bob said he has ADHD; George said he has anger issues. George said he has watched his father go through the emotional trauma of divorce, which doctors treated with opiate-based prescription drugs.

“He really got wacked out,” George said.

Allen said he used to run McShares, a Salina flour additive company. He’s just a businessman, he said. With ethics.

“I’ve had guys, 25 years old and healthy, ask if I can take them out there,” he said.

“I told them, ‘Why don’t you get in your car and drive out there yourself?’ ”

The case for

Since the drug culture flowered, you could count on Kansans like Darrel Pentz being dead set against legal marijuana.

Pentz could be the poster guy for conservative Kansans: Taxpayer. Home owner. Safety inspector for a big aviation company. Collected petition signatures opposing Mayor Elma Broadfoot’s attempt decades ago to restrict guns. Voted GOP for every candidate since the Ford administration.

But in his kitchen, Pentz pulls out pills he takes for his colorectal cancer. Four of the seven containers he plops down on his table are legal, prescribed painkillers, including Percocet, derived from the same opium that produces heroin.

Another bottle contains 57 dark blue pills of morphine so potent, Pentz said, that “before you take it, you better make sure you pulled your socks down and laid yourself out – you’re going out like a light for eight hours.” Pot is safer, he said.

“This stuff can kill you,” Pentz said, waving a hand at the pills. “But this stuff is OK.

“But pot has a social stigma, and so it’s not OK.

“We can’t even have a sensible conversation about this in this state.”

One absurdity, Pentz said, is that marijuana is illegal because it might cause addiction. So why justify more lethal and addictive narcotics like morphine?

“It’s like everybody bought into that old movie ‘Reefer Madness,’ ” he said.

The case against

Lt. Chris Bannister and Cheyenne County Sheriff Cody Beeson remember a simpler time, when the “alcohol is worse” argument carried more weight.

Bannister runs the Wichita Police Department’s Special Investigations Bureau, which goes after dope dealers, among other criminals. Beeson’s officers patrol the state line with Colorado, in Kansas’ northwest corner. K-36, a highway corridor to Denver, bisects Beeson’s county.

They regard medical marijuana as a threat, for several reasons.

“An increase of drivers who are impaired on marijuana is a major concern,” Beeson wrote in an e-mail.

They’ve worked more accidents, Beeson said. “We’ve had an increase in encountering drivers who have smoked marijuana recently enough that the odor is strong in the vehicle,” he said.

Bannister outlined bigger worries.

Detectives began to see more methamphetamine coming to town a decade or so ago, and more people with morphine, Oxycodone and other opiate-based prescription drugs.

Western Kansas cops like Rooks County Sheriff Gary Knight and Ford County investigator Tim McClure say that meth and prescription pills are everywhere, and now they see more medical-grade pot coming from Colorado.

With so many more dangerous drugs on the streets, it’s wrong to add another layer of drugs, Bannister said.

“So the solution to this is to make high-grade marijuana easier to get?” Knight asked. “How is that a solution?”

Past movements

Marijuana advocates are doomed to fail for years to come, sociologist Ron Matson says.

Matson, acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Wichita State University, said many social movements have started against long odds: slave emancipation, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. Those movements have seen varying degrees of success.

He said the pro-marijuana lobby has done one thing right and has a chance to do more.

It has changed the debate by portraying marijuana as a medical issue, he said. Pot got stigmatized when it was the wild thing in the music scene, and then the 1960s counter-culture popularized it.

There is at least one other ingredient that might influence the debate, Matson said: money.

“People used to make religious and moral arguments against gambling,” he said.

“But as soon as the state next door is taking your gambling revenue, you build a casino,” he said. “At that point, moral and religious arguments become vacuous.

“I’ll be curious to see how much Colorado makes off this, and what happens next.”

Politics of pot

Finney said other legislators have made sure that her medical marijuana bills never get out of committee. So she’s playing for the future “when more common sense will prevail.”

Last year the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature – a group with 165 or so elderly members but little political clout – voted overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana.

Among them was Frank White, a former Sedgwick County prosecutor who used to send both alcohol and drug violators to prisons.

“The harm that comes from alcohol – the domestic batteries and the other ills – are far worse than what comes from marijuana,” White said. “I never once saw a police report where someone smoked marijuana and beat up his wife and kids. You see it every day with alcohol.”

Another yes vote: Celia Chace, 83, of Wichita, who is in constant pain and uses a wheelchair.

“I am allergic to every prescription pain medication there is,” she says. “And those drugs are so dangerous.

“My hands are useless, my eyes are bad, and I can’t walk. What possible harm can medical marijuana do to me?”

Finney said her office has received an unusually large number of calls and messages supporting her bill.

“We need to have a debate on the pros and cons of medical marijuana for very sick people,” she said. “And we can’t have that now because of the mind-set of our Legislature.”

“I just want to have a hearing,” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City. He has introduced bills similar to Finney’s repeatedly in the Senate.

But Senate president Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said that no one is talking about an FDA-approved drug here.

“If we want to have a conversation about recreational marijuana, then let’s do that,” Wagle said. “But to disguise the drug as a legitimate, tested and controlled pharmaceutical is dishonest.”

New drug problem

Cops like Bannister say they spent years thinking that marijuana alone does not constitute a serious community threat like cocaine, heroin and meth.

But a few years ago, dealers who used to bring Mexican pot to Wichita started coming with containers of medical grade marijuana, which is much more potent.

“This was years before Colorado approved medical marijuana,” Bannister said.

“It wasn’t any longer your Mexican marijuana that sold for roughly $600 a pound. All of a sudden it is medical-grade – $3,000 to $5,000 a pound.

“When you add that monetary value to a criminal enterprise, you get drug-house robberies, drug deal rip-offs, people stealing money, stealing drugs.”

None of that will go away if pot gets legalized, even medically, he and other cops said.

Marijuana supporters say that selling marijuana legally will make illegal drug dealers go away. But Knight, the Rooks County sheriff, said cartel dealers will acquire all the medical-grade they want and sell it cheaper on the black market, undercutting the legal merchants who have to pay taxes.

Where’s the line?

Esau Freeman and Bannister agree about one thing: Laws or no laws, pot is everywhere, “including in all our schools, and all our neighborhoods,” as Bannister put it.

Freeman, from Wichita, leads “Kansas For Change,” a group pushing for bills like Finney’s. Pentz is a board member.

“Unless the cops pull over every car, every truck and every airplane coming in to Kansas, they are not going to stop marijuana,” Freeman said. “All they’ve done is spend a lot of money, locked up a lot of people, and done a lot of damage to families.”

Derek Schmidt disagrees.

“Colorado made legal something that the federal government and the government of Kansas say is still illegal,” said Schmidt, the Kansas attorney general. “And Kansas has to deal with the consequences.

“There has to be a line drawn somewhere. It seems to me that even if marijuana was declared legal here, there would immediately be people trying to aggressively argue that we need to establish yet another line, with yet another drug.

“So where do you draw it?”

Colorado created wacky legal situations for Kansas, said McClure, the investigator for the Ford County Sheriff’s Office and head of the Kansas Narcotics Officers Association. That’s a group trained to go after drugs.

Imagine being a cop in Kansas state-line towns like Goodland or Elkhart, he said.

“Smoke it on the Kansas side, you can get arrested,” he said. “Walk across the road and smoke weed, you’re legal.”

Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle

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