Kansas lawmakers held their second of three planned hearings on medical marijuana legalization on Wednesday, hearing testimony from supporters, opponents and neutral parties on the reform effort.
This comes one week after the members of the legislature’s Special Committee on Medical Marijuana, which a bicameral panel formed in June, convened for an initial meeting that involved state officials, law enforcement and an Oklahoma medical cannabis regulator giving their perspective on the issue.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Robert Olson (R), said at that meeting that members would also be accepting feedback from interested parties that could be worked into the pending proposal over a several-week period between meetings when lawmakers will be “putting the bill together” to present to the full legislature.
“This is not our first meeting on this,” Olson said on Wednesday. “I think everybody appears trying to do the right thing… I know Kansans want this for pain relief.”
But he stressed the importance of this process and carefully crafting legislation that avoids what he described as the mistakes of other states that have enacted medical cannabis legalization at the ballot like Oklahoma and Missouri. The chairman said that if he tries to put legislation on the floor prematurely, “I’ll get my head chopped off.”
“I’ll be on that floor for days trying to answer questions, and they’ll tear the bill apart,” Olson said. “It’ll never pass. You’ve got to get the details right in the legislature to pass a piece of legislation like this.”
Wednesday’s discussion focused on the “public policy implications” of medical marijuana legalization. Supporters far outnumbered opponents at the hearing, and they made the case that Kansas is uniquely positioned to take lessons from other states and incorporate them into a new medical cannabis program.
Advocates and stakeholders offered advice on how to effectively regulate the market, touching on issues like track-and-trace, the pros and cons of licensing caps and the role that physicians should play.
The committee also heard about the “large benefit” of generating tax revenue from medical cannabis sales, as Kanha Technology Solutions CEO Orland Yee said.
However, he cautioned that “if you make the tax burden very high, and it’s the less expensive for a black market operator to make higher profits than in the legal system,” that could undermine the regulated program.
Sue Sisley, a researcher with the Field to Healed Foundation, discussed clinical trials that she’s worked on showing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, particularly with respect to the military veteran population.
“Cannabis is a medicine that’s been used for centuries. It was part of our U.S. Pharmacopoeia that meant physicians could prescribe cannabis to patients,” Sisley said. “Unfortunately, because of massive political forces, it was eventually lumped into Schedule I, and this has made it very difficult for us to study this medicine properly.”
It’s testimony day for the medical marijuana interim committee! #ksleg pic.twitter.com/3obDYqYEAm
— Christina Haswood (@HaswoodForKS) October 19, 2022
During the second half of Wednesday’s meeting, opponents raised concerns about the public health impacts of high potency THC products, impaired driving and the legal considerations for physicians given the state-federal marijuana policy conflict.
“This is, as you all know, a federally prohibited substance, so to pass such a law would put state in conflict with federal law and puts physicians in the unenviable position of policing this federally prohibited substance,” Rachelle Colombo of the Kansas Medical Society said. “This is not a philosophical position. There is really just a concern that it puts physicians and an unfortunate position on something that has not had appropriate clinical testing, no medical efficacy and the risks are unknown.”
Greg Smith of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, a former state lawmaker, said that the department is opposed to the initiative, but “we’re pretty sure that this is something that’s probably going to pass.”
“There really is no such thing as medical marijuana. It’s a Schedule I drug, and that has no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse,” he said. “That’s how it’s classified.”
The committee’s third meeting is scheduled for November 16,though Olson said it will be moved back “another week or so” to give lawmakers more time to study pending issues with previously filed legislation. In any case, that meeting is when members are expected discuss and finalize their proposal for the full legislature for the 2023 session.
In the midst of these discussions, a spokesperson for the top Kansas GOP senator recently said the issue is “not a priority”—prompting pushback from House Democratic leadership.
The spokesperson said that Senate President Ty Masterson (R) recognizes that the reform issue is “maturing,” adding that any federal action “would be more evidence of that.” However, “it is not a priority” for the senator, who wields significant influence over what legislation advances.
While advocates were disappointed that lawmakers were unable to pass a medical cannabis bill by the end of the 2022 session in May—despite considerable momentum and the support of Gov. Laura Kelly (D)—the hope is that the committee’s work will lay the groundwork for meaningful action when the legislature convenes again.
The special panel is comprised of members appointed by the House speaker and Senate president.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer (D) said in June that he’s “been pretty frustrated that we have yet to get a bill passed,” while acknowledging that the House voted to legalize medical marijuana last year only to see a relative lack of action in the Senate.
The Senate did hold several hearings on cannabis reform this year, but members never got around to scheduling a vote. Late in the session, legislative leaders formed a bicameral conference committee that was tasked with arriving at a deal that could pass both chambers, although that didn’t pan out by the time lawmakers adjourned.
Democratic lawmakers made a final push to enact medical cannabis legalization before the legislative deadline, but Olson said in May that the “heavy load” his committee had to carry on other issues meant that lawmakers would not be “getting this measure across the finish line this session.”
Members of the House and Senate Federal and State Affairs Committees held two public conference meetings in April to discuss a way to merge the House-passed medical marijuana bill with a separate one that Senate lawmakers began considering this year. At the last official meeting, lawmakers from the House side went through areas where they were willing to concede to differences in the other chamber’s bill, as well as provisions they wanted to keep from their own measure.
In general, the two chambers’ proposals were already fairly similar, sharing numerous key provisions.
Here’s an overview of the key provisions where the bills from the House and Senate already overlapped:
Patients with any of more than 20 qualifying conditions—including cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and autoimmune disorders—would be eligible for medical cannabis.
Patients would be entitled to obtain a 30-day supply of medical cannabis products at a time.
Possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana by a person who isn’t registered as a patient would be decriminalized, punishable by a maximum fine of $400.
Patients’ medical cannabis recommendations would be valid for 90 days, after which point a physician could renew the recommendations for three additional periods. Then extensions could be authorized following a physical examination of the patient annually.
Medical cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax of 5.75 percent, with the option of adding a local tax.
Multiple regulatory bodies would be in charge of administering the program. The state Department of Health and Environment, Board of Healing Arts, Board of Pharmacy and a renamed Alcohol and Cannabis Control division would each play a role in the regulations.
The legislation would also establish a medical marijuana advisory committee to help oversee the program and issue recommendations.
The bill calls for five different license types: cultivators, processors, laboratories, distributors and retailers. People would be rendered ineligible for a medical marijuana licenses if they’ve been convicted of a felony, unless that conviction was expunged at least 10 years before the application is submitted.
There would also be a 35 percent THC cap on marijuana plant material.
Counties would be able to enact local bans on permitting marijuana retailers from operating within their jurisdictions through the adopt of a resolution.
With respect to equity provisions, there does not appear to be an explicit pathway for expungements.
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Here are some of the changes that the House said it was willing to accept from the Senate bill:
Pushing back the effective date of the law and deadlines for its implementation.
Removing a 70 percent THC cap on cannabis concentrates.
Out-of-state patients would have reciprocity to both possess and purchase marijuana if they’re registered with their state.
Preventing discrimination in real estate transactions to lease or sell property to registered medical marijuana patients.
Keep the Senate’s licensing application requirements, terms of licensing and rules on where cannabis businesses can operate.
Requiring certain security measures at medical marijuana businesses.
Requiring the state to enter into agreements with tribal governments in order to exchange cannabis.
Doctors wouldn’t have to start “prescribing,” rather than recommending, medical marijuana if the federal government reclassifies cannabis.
Here are some areas where the House insisted on its version, or offered a compromise:
Maintaining most of the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, which includes more than 20 ailments, but keeping its more limited language and removing glaucoma.
Allowing people to receive a medical marijuana business licenses after at least three years of residency in Kansas. The original House bill called for four years, while the Senate had two years.
Allowing regulators to create a unique payment process system for cannabis sales in coordination with the state treasurer.
Keeping a $500 license fee for associated employees of medical marijuana businesses, but lowering fees for other employee types.
Keeping state and local licensing eligibility requirements as stated in the House bill.
There were some additional outstanding items that members hadn’t quite decided on as of April’s meeting and said they needed additional time to work. Those issues are related to advertising requirements, rules for cultivation facilities, licensing fees, creating a pilot program for medical cannabis and employment discrimination.
After his House counterpart went through the list of provisions and proposals at the April hearing, Olson signaled that members would be going back to leadership to see where the chambers can come to an agreement and then “discuss this at a later date” in conference. That never came to fruition, however, and so that’s why lawmakers are now taking steps to set up action for next year.
Sawyer and Assistant Minority Leader Jason Probst (D) said in January that they wanted to let voters decide on legalizing medical and adult-use marijuana in the state.
The governor, for her part, wants to see medical cannabis legalization enacted, and she said earlier this year that she “absolutely” thinks the bill could pass if “everything else doesn’t take up all the oxygen.”
She previously pushed a separate proposal that would legalize medical cannabis and use the resulting revenue to support Medicaid expansion, with Rep. Brandon Woodard (D) filing the measure on the governor’s behalf.
Kelly has she said she wants voters to put pressure on their representatives to get the reform passed.
Following President Joe Biden’s announcement on pardoning people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses and imploring governors to follow suit, Kelly said that her administration is “focused on legalizing medical marijuana so that Kansans with severe illnesses no longer have to suffer.
She added that they will “continue to consider all clemency and pardon requests based on a complete and thorough review of the individual cases.”
The governor also said in 2020 that while she wouldn’t personally advocate for adult-use legalization, she wouldn’t rule out signing the reform into law if a reform bill arrived on her desk.
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