Kansas’ broad marijuana bill attracts bulk of GOP votes
Topeka Supporters of a broad bill that would ease marijuana laws wending its way through the Kansas Legislature claim it's a narrow enough set of reforms that conservative Republicans can vote for and demonstrates a shift in the long-running discussion.
Kansas' GOP-dominated House passed the bill by a wide margin Thursday, making it the most serious push to liberalize Kansas' marijuana policies in decades. The bill would decrease penalties for marijuana possession, order a state study of industrial hemp and allow limited production and sale of hemp oil to treat seizures.
Democratic Rep. Gail Finney from Wichita, who for many years has supported comprehensive marijuana legislation, said efforts to "educate" the Legislature have "paid off."
"I think that the visibility and the acceptance of medicinal marijuana is more in the forefront today and I couldn't be more ecstatic," she said.
Republicans provided most of the 81 votes the measure needed to move to the Senate, and Shawnee Republican Rep. Brett Hildabrand saying partisan lines are now blurred on marijuana policy, which he views as "not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue." And Republican Majority Leader Jene Vickrey from Louisberg said the bill was successful because it was "very guarded, very carefully drafted" and "Republicans are companionate toward individuals that have health concerns."
Kansas' neighbor to the west, Colorado, has legalized recreational marijuana as of 2014, a move that prompted a lawsuit from the attorneys general in Nebraska and Oklahoma. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in January that the state was "assessing its options" on the possibility of joining the suit, but his office has declined to comment further.
Only Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia have followed Colorado in legalizing recreational marijuana, but 23 states have comprehensive medical marijuana laws. Twenty-two states have initiated studies of industrial hemp and 14 have legalized some medical use of hemp oil, as the Kansas bill would do.
The state's first movement on loosening pot laws happened last month, when Wichita voters approved a ballot initiative last month that drops penalties for first-time marijuana possession to a $50 fine. The ordinance has not yet gone into force as the state Supreme Court reviews whether it unconstitutionally conflicts with state law.
Although the House bill would not resolve the legal conflict, initiative co-organizer Esau Freeman said he was "absolutely surprised" by the vote and said it shows legislators "are listening to the people of Kansas."
The original version of the bill would keep first- and second-time marijuana offenders who don't have serious prior convictions out of jail — a reform that is expected to decrease overcrowded prison populations and save more than $1.7 million over the next two fiscal years, according to state estimates.
The bill also would allow state-licensed producers to make hemp oil with no more than 3 percent of the compound THC, which gives marijuana its intoxicating effects. Only about 24,000 residents with severe seizure disorders would be allowed to purchase the hemp oil, according to Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence.
Wilson crafted the medical marijuana language and said he intentionally made it as narrow as possible to make it something that the 97 Republicans in the 125-member chamber could vote for, calling it an "un-sexy, health-related bill," on the floor.
Despite that, many conservative Republicans still oppose the bill, saying they worried that it conflicts with federal laws and would be difficult to enforce. Republican Rep. Dick Jones from Topeka warned that even with its narrow focus, the measure would be "a foot in the door" to full legalization.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce said he has not had time to review the bill and was "pretty well surprised" it passed in the House. Senate Republicans would be reluctant to reduce criminal penalties, he said, but the bill would have some support.
Even if it is rejected, Finney said, the conversation has changed. "Kansas is always behind the book, and this is one of those baby steps." she said. "We've got to continue making baby steps."