TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators aren’t ready to declare that marijuana possession never should be a felony, rejecting proposals Monday to lower penalties for third-time offenders and to release others from prison.
The House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee voted 7-4 against a bill that would make possessing marijuana a misdemeanor, no matter how many times someone was convicted. Kansas law currently says a third conviction is a felony that can be punished by up to 14 months in prison, though offenders often receive probation.
The bill also initially said offenders now in prison for marijuana possession would be released, but the committee removed that provision from the measure. Supporters of lessening the penalties for repeated marijuana possession accepted the change to give the bill a better chance of passing.
Yet the measure failed to clear the GOP-controlled committee anyway, and Chairman Russ Jennings said the debate on the idea is over for the year. It was a blow to advocates of less strict laws on pot.
“I still don’t believe that marijuana should be legalized,” said GOP Representative Stephen Owens. “I believe this was a step in that direction.”
Jennings supported the bill and said continuing to make some pot possession a felony is “pretty harsh.”
“I thought this was mild enough that it might get through the committee,” said Democratic Representative Boog Highberger, of Lawrence, home to the liberal University of Kansas main campus. “I can’t explain it.”
Jennings also worried that Monday’s vote is a sign that Kansas lawmakers also aren’t ready to legalize medical marijuana yet, despite expectations of having a serious debate this year. More than 30 states have legalized medical marijuana, including conservative neighbors Missouri and Oklahoma.
No Kansas legislative committee has taken up a medical marijuana bill. However, another House panel, the Federal and State Affairs Committee, is having one drafted, and it could be ready as early as next week, said Chairman John Barker.
Some corrections committee members said they see medical marijuana as a different issue. They said the pot possession bill was problematic partly because some offenders plead guilty to possession when facing more serious charges.
And Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka police chief who lobbies for law enforcement groups, said current state law is “reasonable” because people convicted a third time of marijuana possession typically don't go to prison unless they've committed another felony such as aggravated assault.
As for other states legalizing medical marijuana, Klumpp said, “Well, my mother used to tell me all the time, ‘Just because Johnny jumped off a cliff, it doesn’t mean you should.’”