Medical marijuana moved closer to legalization in Kansas with the election of Laura Kelly, a supporter who soon will be governor.
Kansas is now surrounded on three sides by states with either legalized recreational or medical marijuana use, after Missouri voters approved medical use last Nov. 6. Thirty-two states allow some form of medical marijuana use.
“I think that there is some momentum in the Legislature to pass, to legalize medical marijuana. I think we would do it Kansas-style, where it would be well-regulated,” Kelly told reporters recently.
Kelly, a Democrat, will have to convince a Republican-controlled Legislature to approve medical marijuana. Bills stretching back years have received hearings, but lawmakers have not passed them.
Still, supporters hope Kelly’s presence in the governor’s office will pave the way for legislation to advance.
“I think it will definitely change the conversation, because we’ve had eight years with a governor who would not even hear of it, and now we have a governor who has indicated, if it falls within the right perimeters, that she would sign a bill,” said Esau Freeman, a spokesman for the pro-legalization group Kansas for Change.
Kelly has said Kansas is not ready for recreational marijuana, and Freeman said conservatives who may be skeptical or opposed should take note that Kelly is focused on medical, rather than recreational, use.
It is unclear how much attention Kelly will devote to medical marijuana. The issue was not a major focus for her during the general election, though it was a frequent point of discussion in the first contested Democratic primary for governor in two decades.
Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who has pushed for medical marijuana for years, predicted the Legislature will approve it within the next couple years. Haley said he will try to build a bipartisan coalition in support of a bill.
Previously, medical marijuana supporters would have had to gather supermajorities in both the House and Senate to override a likely veto from the governor. But with Kelly likely to support a medical marijuana bill, supporters now only need simple majorities in both chambers.
“I believe this issue has support from rural, suburban and urban districts across party lines. I think the governor at the top indicating she would sign it is certainly the icing on the cake. But the cake itself would come from a reflection of the House and Senate understanding that this is what a majority of Kansans want,” Haley said.
A survey of Kansans conducted this fall by Fort Hays State University found 52 percent of respondents support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, while 39 percent oppose legalization for recreational use. The survey did not ask specifically about medical marijuana.
Proponents of medical use will encounter some opposition from the state’s medical community. The Kansas Medical Society, a physicians group, doesn’t support bypassing approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration to allow medical use.
Rachelle Colombo, the society’s director of government affairs, said legalizing marijuana for medical use makes physicians the gatekeepers, which the organization doesn’t support.
“There isn’t enough evidence to support that it has medical use and it puts physicians in an uncomfortable, and really a risky, position of potentially recommending something for which there’s no proof and could actually have some negative outcomes for patients,” Colombo said.
The first comprehensive analysis of research on medical marijuana in 2015 found that it has not been proven to work for many illnesses that states had approved it for. The strongest evidence of its potential benefits lies in treating chronic pain and muscle stiffness in multiple sclerosis, the review found.
The FDA has approved drugs based on cannabis ingredients to treat epilepsy and chemotherapy-induced nausea, but marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
Research on marijuana can be difficult because the federal government classifies the drug as a Scheduled I controlled substance.
Although medical groups often oppose medical marijuana, they may be more open to recreational use. That’s because the legalization of recreational marijuana treats marijuana more like other legal substances such as alcohol or tobacco, rather than as a medical drug.
Colombo said the Kansas Medical Society doesn’t have a position on the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Medical opposition won’t necessarily stop medical marijuana from advancing. Last week, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana despite opposition from all of the state’s major physician groups.
Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican, said he’s not necessarily opposed to medical marijuana. But he needs more information first, such as how tightly controlled access to marijuana would be and how patients would obtain marijuana, whether it would be through a pharmacy or a shop.
“I think we need to have the conversation,” Barker said. “I would welcome the conversation and base our decision on facts, not fiction, and make sure we have the appropriate controls.”
Contributing: Andy Marso of the Kansas City Star and the Associated Press