Published May 6th, 2021 at 4:50 PM
TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas took its first major step toward legalizing medical marijuana Thursday when the conservative Republicans who dominate the state House passed a bill that tracks a national trend and bucks federal law.
Kansas-style legalization would regulate everything from patient access to cannabis advertising.
The historic floor debate stretched on for nearly five hours, laying bare divisions among Republicans. The bill passed 79-42 and heads to the Kansas Senate. Some lawmakers argued that legalizing medical marijuana fell in line with small-government philosophies.
“It’s time,” Bunker Hill Republican Rep. Troy Waymaster said. “It is the right move forward for the state of Kansas.”
Opponents like Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, a Republican from western Kansas, argued that the legalization of medical marijuana would set the stage for recreational use.
“In 10 years, when we’re driving down Main Street and there’s two and three dispensaries on every block, that’s on us,” Lee-Hahn said. “We did that.”
Rep. Blake Carpenter, a conservative Republican who shepherded the bill on the floor of the House, called it a conservative option for legalization.
“Government is becoming a nanny state,” he said. “We really need to get back to individual responsibility and trusting that people will use this medical marijuana in a responsible manner, at home in order to help their seizures or other issues that they have.”
Kansas remains one of only a few states where medical marijuana remains illegal.
The bill went through lengthy revisions and ended up with restrictions designed to win over the most conservative members of the Legislature. Lawmakers amended the bill Thursday to allow counties to effectively opt-out of medical marijuana by banning growers, distributors and dispensaries.
In most cases, patients would be required to get a recommendation from a doctor with whom they’ve had a relationship for six months.
More than 20 medical conditions are listed for use with the drugs. They include Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and epilepsy.
The bill would allow for additions to the list, and set the rules for making changes. For instance, people could petition an advisory committee to add more. After a review, the committee could make a recommendation to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment whether to add other conditions to the list. The decision would ultimately be made by the state’s health secretary.
An amendment added Thursday requires conditions on the list to be reviewed every three years with the potential to be removed if evidence about the benefits of medical marijuana change.
The bill also includes limitations on the forms of medical marijuana available. In short, nothing people could smoke or vape. In the version of the bill passed by the House on Thursday, patients could only get their medical marijuana as edibles, oils, tinctures, patches or plant material.
Physicians would also have to get a special state certification to recommend medical marijuana.
Employers could still ban employees from using marijuana even if they got it legally for medical reasons. They could still drug test employees and discipline or fire people for violating a no-marijuana policy.
Yet many conservatives objected to the legalization of what they called a “gateway drug.” Others, like Rep. Pat Proctor, a Republican from Leavenworth, said legalization would be a “death blow” to his town.
“This bill is setting us on the path toward recreational marijuana,” he said. “If you don’t believe that, then I would ask: ‘Why are we selling it in dispensaries instead of pharmacies? Why are we growing it in buildings instead of farms? Why are we dispensing it in any other form other than pill form?’ ”
But Republicans like freshman Rep. Samantha Poetter said prohibition doesn’t work.
“The reality today is marijuana is in Kansas,” she said, “whether you want to admit it or not.”
She said 80% of constituents in her mostly rural district favor medical marijuana.
“(But) rather than allowing those who benefit from the use of it do so legally,” she said, “we have to force veterans, cancer patients and many others to buy a drug off of the street, unregulated, and from who knows where.”
Dueling factions of Republicans offered a litany of amendments that ranged from limiting the prescription of medical marijuana to pharmacies rather than dispensaries to reigning in the scope of advertising.
Democrats offered only a handful of amendments attempting once to set a percentage of licenses for dispensaries or growing operations that must be given to “equity groups” like Black, Latino, or low-income Kansans.
“The intent of this is to recognize that not everybody in this state could get the capital to open right now and many families have somebody who’s currently incarcerated because they’ve done the very same thing we’re about to issue these licenses for,” said Rep. Jo Ella Hoye.
That provision failed 43-68.
Rep. Gail Finney, a Democrat from Wichita who has lupus, also gained support from lawmakers to add lupus to the list of medical conditions eligible for medical marijuana.
The battle to legalize medical marijuana in Kansas may still fall short this year. Senate President Ty Masterson said earlier in the week that it’s too late for the Senate to look at a bill that it hasn’t worked on this year. Even so, the bill would be ready to advance in the 2022 session.
Gov. Laura Kelly would likely support the bill if it made it to her desk. She proposed a much different plan earlier in the session, but has said that in general she supports legalizing medical cannabis in Kansas.
“I want Kansans to be able to get the treatment they need here in their home state,” she said earlier this year, “and not have to go someplace else.”
Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Stephen Koranda contributed to this report.