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Kansas Senate Rejects Motion To Revive Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill



The Kansas Senate has rejected a motion to revive a medical marijuana legalization bill after a GOP member forced a vote on the issue.

The chamber struck down the motion to take up the bill from Sen. Robert Olson (R) in a 12-25 vote on Friday. This comes weeks after a legislative committee shot down a separate medical cannabis pilot program bill.

The legislation Olson sought to bring up, SB 135, was shelved by a legislative panel a year ago amid pushback from law enforcement.

Sen. Cindy Holscher (D) was among those who voted in favor of the proposal on Friday, and she said that “over the past three weeks, scores of Kansans have reached out to their senator voicing support for medicinal cannabis—as they have done for nearly the past decade.”

“Sadly, supporters have faced many hurdles on this important measure time and time again,” she said. “Today, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to move this measure forward, which is supported by a majority of Kansans.”

Olsen previously backed medical marijuana legalization and said last October that Senate President Ty Masterson (R) removed him as chair of a Senate committee after after he held the hearings on the issue. The senator said at the time that he believed it was a retaliatory move.

The measure in its current form would legalize and regulate medical marijuana in Kansas, with products taxed at 10 percent. The industry would be overseen by regulators at by the state Department of Revenue’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which would be renamed the Division of Alcohol and Cannabis Control.

Patients and caregivers would need to register through the state’s Department of Health and Environment, with patients paying a $50 registration fee and caregivers charged $25. All fees or fines collected as part of the program would be routed to a new Medical Cannabis Registration Fund to cover costs related to administration and enforcement.

Physicians would need to obtain a state certificate in order to recommend medical marijuana. The state’s Board of Pharmacy, meanwhile, would establish guidelines for dispensary reports and tracking. A pharmacist seeking to work as consultants for a dispensary would need to pay a $100 registration fee.

Financial institutions working with state-legal businesses would be shielded from criminal liability under Kansas law, and the bill would allow state-licensed marijuana companies to do business with Native American tribal marijuana entities.

After the Senate committee shelved SB 135 last year, Gov. Laura Kelly (D) issued a statement urging the public to contact their representatives to demand that they take the legislation back up for action.

Kelly, who has long championed cannabis reform, said at the time that she was “disappointed that some legislators are saying they don’t want to move forward with legalizing medical marijuana this year—effectively turning their backs on our veterans and those with chronic pain and seizure disorders.”

Olson’s motion to revisit SB 135, filed earlier this month, came about a week after Kansas lawmakers shelved another medical marijuana bill, SB 555, which would have created a limited pilot program in the state. That measure envisioned a maximum of four vertically integrated medical marijuana companies statewide, and it also would have allowed pharmacies to dispense medical marijuana.

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There would be a requirement that a director, manager or officer of a medical cannabis company have held a hemp producer license for the two years prior to entering the marijuana industry.

To participate in the program, patients with one of 16 qualifying conditions—including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain—would need to obtain a certification from a physicians. Smoking cannabis would be banned, nor would patients or caregivers be allowed to grow marijuana at home.

At the time, Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) Director Tony Mattivi said his agency is “strongly opposed” to the proposal.

“I’m very concerned by some of the trends and the data that we’ve seen as we look around the country at other states that have legalized,” he said, arguing counter to most evidence that state-level reform is associated with increased rates of opioid overdoses.

He also claimed legalization would open the door to organized crime that the agency doesn’t have the resources to manage.

The Kansas Cannabis Chamber of Commerce also opposed the bill, with President Erren Wright warning that the “extreme limitations on medical cannabis in this bill are going to hurt more people than they help.”

The pilot program measure was filed about a month after the Kansas House of Representatives rejected a Democratic lawmaker’s amendment to a broader drug scheduling bill that would have removed marijuana entirely from the state’s controlled substances law, effectively legalizing it.

A separate bill this session to create a limited medical cannabis program has also faced resistance from some legislative leaders.

House lawmakers previously passed a medical cannabis bill in 2021, but it failed to get traction in the Senate.

Masterson, the Senate president, said late last year he was open to a discussion about a limited medical marijuana program, but in January he appeared less open to the idea, calling medical legalization a “nonstarter” and suggesting the policy change could lead to a surge in “gang activity” and put kids at risk.

He also suggested voters didn’t understand medical marijuana. “I think what people see when they think of medical, they’re thinking of, you know, palliative care and things like that,” Masterson said.

Masterson, who also helped kill the House-passed medical marijuana bill in 2021, has downplayed popular support for broader adult-use cannabis legalization, suggesting voters don’t understand the policy change.

“If you look at that question, I think most people would answer yes, but they don’t know what they’re actually saying yes to,” the Senate president said.

Masterson nevertheless maintains that he remains open to discussing the topic. After opponents shelved the pilot program bill, he said in a statement that he’s “consistently indicated that the issue of medical marijuana has matured to a point it warrants serious discussion.”

Olson’s motion this month would provide another opportunity for lawmakers to have that discussion.

A Kansas Speaks poll from last fall found that 67 percent of Kansans, including a majority of Republicans, support legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older.

A year ago, in her 2023 State of the State address, the governor said that there’s a “commonsense way to improve health care here in Kansas—and that’s to finally legalize medical marijuana.”

Kelly also said in 2021 that she would be “enlisting the efforts of the people of Kansas who really want this” to pressure their lawmakers to get the reform enacted.

Members of the state’s Special Committee on Medical Marijuana held final meetings on the issue in December 2022, as they worked to prepare legislation for the 2023 session. Sen. Rob Olson (R), who chaired the special panel, said that he believed Masterson removed him as chair of the Federal and State Affairs Committee in retaliation for holding the medical marijuana hearings.

Also in 2022, then-House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer (D) and Assistant Minority Leader Jason Probst (D) said they wanted to let voters decide on legalizing medical and adult-use marijuana in the state.

The governor, for her part, 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.

Following President Joe Biden’s announcement in 2022 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.

Kelly 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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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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