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Advocates hopeful as Kansas heads for medical marijuana debate

Ed Andrieski

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas lawmakers expect to have their most serious debate so far on medical marijuana this year, fueling the hopes of advocates who have been stymied by the state’s prohibitionist roots and Republican-controlled Legislature.

Democratic Governor Laura Kelly has said she would sign a bill legalizing medical marijuana. A House committee has committed to reviewing the issue, with its members engaging in a brief, informal debate about it during the year’s first meeting this week.

Some legislators who back medical marijuana still hesitate to predict that a bill would pass, suggesting it may take another year or two. And Kelly didn't mention the issue during her annual State of the State address. Yet advocates are optimistic.

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Legislators in both parties concede that they’re being forced to consider the issue more seriously because conservative neighbors Missouri and Oklahoma legalized the medical use of marijuana in 2018 through ballot initiatives, and Colorado allows adult recreational use. Pressure also has built on them as the states allowing medical marijuana have increased to 33, and advocates pitch marijuana as a medical alternative amid the nation’s opioid epidemic.

“With Colorado and Oklahoma being so close and Oklahoma being a rather conservative partner to Kansas, I would say that they're starting to just decide that the climate's changed," said Esau Freeman, a longtime Wichita legalization advocate and co-founder of the advocacy group Kansans for Change.

Kelly’s election in 2018 boosted the prospects for medical marijuana in Kansas. Her GOP predecessor, Governor Jeff Colyer, a surgeon, opposed it, as did the last Republican nominee for governor, Kris Kobach.

Kansas legislators last year created an industrial hemp research and production program, and approved a law to protect from prosecution people who use cannabidiol oils to treat children with debilitating medical conditions.

Three medical marijuana bills carried over from last year when lawmakers opened their annual lawmaking session Monday. A fall study committee recommended considering a measure like Ohio's 2016 law, which allows treatments for about 20 conditions if the marijuana cannot be smoked.

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“Out in the public, people just think it needs to be done,” acknowledged House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican who has opposed the idea.

Movement on medical marijuana is at odds with a streak of Kansas history that includes famed saloon-smasher Carrie Nation.

Kansas prohibited the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1881, and when that proved still too loose for some lawmakers, a 1917 “bone dry” law banned almost all personal possession and consumption. Kansas didn't abandon prohibition until 1949, some 16 years after the end of the failed nationwide experiment.

The state also was slower than others to create a lottery or legalize other forms of gambling.

“Kansas, many many years ago, was thought of as sort of a progressive state. But with issues such as gambling or marijuana, there really is an inherent conservative streak,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist. “Not just along party lines, either.”

Kansas also doesn't allow groups or individuals to put proposed laws or state constitutional amendments up to a statewide vote by circulating petitions — as they could in both Missouri and Oklahoma.

“They were forced into it,” said Kansas state Senator Gene Suellentrop, another conservative Wichita Republican, chairman of his chamber’s health committee.

Kansas law enforcement groups still oppose medical marijuana, arguing that it would increase crime and accidental use by young children and could become a cover for recreational use. They also worry that officers would have trouble distinguishing between its legal and illegal use while enforcing a law.

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“There’s no research that provides a solid base of what it should look like — everybody gets to decide; everybody gets to be the doctor,” said state Representative Eric Smith, a Republican and deputy sheriff from Coffey County, south of Topeka. “As a law enforcement officer, then, what is that going to create for me in my decision-making process on the side of the road?”

Yet even some medical marijuana skeptics acknowledge that Kansas must grapple with what to do about people with legal marijuana prescriptions in other states who travel through Kansas.

The House committee this week briefly discussed the idea of a “safe harbor” law to protect out-of-state travelers from prosecution. But members immediately questioned the fairness of giving out-of-state residents a pass while still busting Kansans.

Freeman, the medical marijuana advocate, said: “Anybody who is standing in the way of it, I think, is on the wrong side of history, and they’re beginning to realize that.”