With the state budget hurting amid COVID-19 and a past commitment from Gov. Laura Kelly to sign a medical marijuana bill, this session may present the most realistic shot yet at passing meaningful cannabis policies.

By Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

After a shortened session dashed hopes for medicinal cannabis legalization in 2020, proponents of the plant are taking a fresh approach for the upcoming legislative session.

Last year, two separate bills were filed pushing for medicinal use, but both died in committee, despite a push to consider cannabis legislation in June when lawmakers convened for a special session. One of the bills offered a more conservative cannabis policy, like that of Ohio.

This year, those pushing to pass the bill are working to create collaborative legislation that appeals to both sides of the aisle, said Daniel Shafton, a consultant for the Kansas Cannabis Business Association.

Shafton said the KSCBA has put significant effort into meetings and webinars with stakeholders and legislators to inform the bill they plan to propose.

“We need to have a cohesive message,” Shafton said. “We were very honest about what needed to happen for us to move forward, and we have been very successfully able to bring a lot of voices to the table in a unified way. We have designed this bill alongside the legislators in a way that really accomplishes major goals from the 2021 Legislature of both sides of the aisle.”

In Kansas, which has already authorized hemp production and the sale of cannabidiol products without tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the next step is legalized medical use. Although such legislation has failed in the past, advocates are confident perception is shifting enough to see a bill through the House and Senate.

Erin Montroy, co-president and CEO of the KSCBA, said a bill will be filed in the first week or so of the legislative session. She said the bill would likely lean toward the conservative end of the spectrum in the early going and could be modified as the session progressed.

“No bill is perfect. No program is perfect,” Montroy said. “If we can get one off the ground and started, we can build on it, and with these relationships that will be much easier down the road.”

Montroy said any legislation would be carefully reviewed and edited to ensure that patient outcomes are at the core of the bill.

“The route that a lot of other states were taking to get there wasn’t really working,” Montroy said. “They were building really robust platforms that sounded like they’d be really beneficial to patients. But without a truly robust business platform, the patient suffers, no matter what the legislation says.”

Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who expressed support for cannabis legalization efforts, emphasized the benefits legalization could provide for the criminal justice system.

Estimates from the Council of States Governments Justice Center indicate the state spent $41 million in 2019 to incarcerate people for drug offenses.

“It’s high time that Kansas, which is an agricultural state, get on board and adopt some meaningful legislation to enhance access” to marijuana, Haley said, noting that all but one bordering state had passed some form of legalized cannabis.

Nebraska has yet to legalize marijuana but has decriminalized the drug for first-time offenders. Cannabis is legal for medical use in Missouri and Oklahoma and recreationally in Colorado.

In Kansas, criminal penalties related to cannabis have been reduced during the past several years through adjustments to state law and city ordinances.

Rep. Aaron Coleman, a newly elected Kansas City Democrat who faces an ouster attempt, is a strong proponent of legalizing cannabis. In 2018, he took a shot at the race for governor, campaigning on cannabis policy.

Like Haley, Coleman sees legalization as a crucial step for equity in the criminal justice system and beyond.

“There’s a lot of benefits to legalizing cannabis, other than just emptying the prisons,” Coleman said. “This is also something which can be used as a medicine. And this would also create millions of dollars in new tax revenue.”

Across the aisle, Republican legislators have typically taken a more cautious and guarded approach to cannabis policy.

Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and physician, is a member of the 2021 House Federal and State Affairs Committee—the group of lawmakers who will review cannabis legislation. Like Coleman, he sees the potential value of cannabis medicinally but draws the line at more widespread, recreational use.

Eplee said his professional experience has shown him a need for more treatment options. He said he must be responsive to the needs and desires of his constituents.

“I think we’re very compelled for societal and cultural reasons to take this up and try to figure out a way to let folks have at least some access to medicinal marijuana at some point in time,” Eplee said. “I don’t know whether it’ll be this session. And I don’t know when it’ll be, but I just think it’s going to keep coming until the dam opens up.”

In the 2020 Kansas Speaks survey by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, 66.9% of respondents “strongly supported” or “somewhat supported” legalizing recreational marijuana for individuals 21 and over to allow taxation by the state.

Eplee said any bill that hopes to pass through both chambers must be strongly regulated, something echoed by Rep. Leo Delperdang, a Wichita Republican.

“There needs to be something in the bill that says it is truly regulated by a licensed physician, and that physician who prescribed it should be held accountable if it messes you up,” Delperdang said. “It needs to be written so the average police officer knows exactly where they stand. The officer is enforcing the law, and it needs to be perfectly clear to them you can have up to X ounces.”

Delperdang voted against a 2019 bill that would have decriminalized possession of CBD oil with a THC concentration of up to 5%. He said that decision came down to a lack of clarity on the quantity that could be possessed, but that he may have been able to stomach the proposed legislation had it been more regulated.

Although he is being cautious in his approach, Delperdang said, he would remain open to any legislation proposed.

With the state budget hurting amid COVID-19 and a past commitment from Gov. Laura Kelly to sign a medical marijuana bill, this session may present the most realistic shot yet at passing meaningful cannabis policies.

“As our state recovers from COVID-19, legalizing medical marijuana is an innovative solution to increase state revenue and improve Kansas’ overall health and economy,” said Reeves Oyster, spokeswoman for Kelly. “We must come up with a Kansas-specific approach that’s well-regulated, controlled, and a collaborative effort with the law enforcement community.”

This story was first published by Kansas Reflector.

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