Politics & Government

Kansas takes a step toward medical marijuana as lawmakers recommend having a look

As a growing number of states legalized some form of medical marijuana — now up to 33 — Kansas always remained a firm opponent.

Legislation to end prohibition never seemed to get very far before opposition from law enforcement and parts of the medical community brought it to a halt. Any change would have faced a near-certain governor’s veto, anyway.

That’s beginning to change.

Kansas lawmakers took a first step Wednesday toward advancing a medical marijuana bill. A special committee recommended the Legislature look to Ohio, where medical use is legal, as a guide.

Lawmakers also called for considering a provision to allow residents from other states where medical marijuana is legal to use the product in Kansas if they have permission from the state where they live.

Like it or not, lawmakers realize calls for medical marijuana are only growing.

“This thing is going to go-go-go eventually, and we all need to kind of be at the table and make it a good piece of legislation to help people,” Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said.

Medical marijuana proponents received a boost a year ago with the election of Gov. Laura Kelly, who supports medical use. But the Democratic chief executive didn’t make legalization a priority as lawmakers focused on the budget, taxes and foster care.

But three of the four states bordering Kansas (Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri) allow some form of medical use. Missouri voters gave their approval in November 2018, and it should be available early next year.

R.E. “Tuck” Duncan, a lobbyist for the Kansas Cannabis Industry Association, suggested there’s momentum to approve medical use in 2020, though he cautioned implementation could take a couple years.

“We’re not necessarily reinventing the wheel, which means we can move faster,” Duncan said.

Any serious effort would likely still face strong opposition. The Kansas Medical Society, a physicians group, doesn’t support bypassing Food and Drug Administration approval.

“Until it’s proven medically effective, we don’t support legislating what can be prescribed in that arena,” Rachelle Colombo, the society’s director of government affairs, said.

Frank Papish, assistant director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, warned lawmakers against following the states that have already approved medical use. He called the suggestion that law enforcement abandon the war on drugs akin to “suggesting we abandon efforts to enforce any other type of criminal activity because there is more than what resources allow us to adequately address.”

Chad Issinghoff, a Hutchinson physician, said that while marijuana is not a “medical panacea,” it might reduce symptoms in people suffering from chronic illnesses and help them better function in society.

“The use of cannabis-derived medical products grows more popular each year despite its controversial nature,” he told lawmakers last week.

The Legislature’s Special Committee on Federal and State Affairs approved its recommendations without much controversy. No one voted against them (though some lawmakers passed on voting, saying they needed more information).

The recommendations are non-binding, but serve as guideposts for fellow lawmakers ahead of the 2020 session that begins in January.

The committee wants lawmakers to examine providing an affirmative defense to out-of-state residents with prescriptions or medical registration cards for medical marijuana if they are charged with a marijuana-related crime. That would exonerate patients who have legal permission for medicinal use. The recommendation excludes Kansas residents.

“I don’t want people from the state of Kansas going to Missouri and taking a prescription in another state and expecting that to be valid,” said Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican and the committee chairman.

More broadly – and more promising for advocates of medical use – the committee also recommended the Legislature use Ohio’s approach to marijuana as it moves forward. The state limits patients to 90-day supplies and prohibits smoking. Edibles, patches and oils are allowed.

The committee’s recommendation goes further than the Ohio in one area, however. It calls for a ban on the vaping of medical marijuana, which is allowed in Ohio. Two people have died in Kansas this year from a mysterious vaping-related illness that has sickened more than 1,000 people nationwide.

Ohio also differs from the path taken by Kansas neighbors Missouri and Oklahoma. In both states, patients can grow their own – a practice prohibited in Ohio.

The modified Ohio plan is unlikely to satisfy people on both ends of the debate.

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter, speaking on behalf of the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, opposes any form of medical marijuana. He said he wants marijuana to undergo FDA testing like any other medication.

Easter said he liked that the recommendation excludes smoking and vaping marijuana and acknowledged there will have to be compromise. But his association won’t compromise on the need for regulation, he said.

“They talk about a prescription, and in most of the other states, that’s not a true prescription,” Easter said, adding that some prescriptions don’t specify dosage.

Jim Ricketts has been smoking marijuana for years. A 1975 car crash paralyzed the Holton resident from the waist down, requiring multiple surgeries and a slew of medications. But marijuana helps him sleep and has gotten him off some pills, he said.

He left the committee meeting Wednesday unhappy with the decision to advance a plan that continues to ban smoking. He expressed fears that large pharmaceutical companies would take over the medical market.

Though he expressed support for stopping youth from smoking and vaping, he said adults should be able to grow their own marijuana for medical use.

“God put that here,” Ricketts said. “He put that here for a reason.”

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.