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Kansas Senators Kill Bill To Create Medical Marijuana Pilot Program



Kansas lawmakers have voted to table a bill to create a medical marijuana pilot program in the state that has drawn early criticism from advocates who view it as excessively restrictive.

The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee took testimony on the legislation in a hearing on Thursday, a little over a week after it was first introduced. But after members heard from supporters, opponents and neutral parties, they accepted a motion to table it until January 13, 2025 in a voice vote—effectively killing the measure for the current session.

After several unsuccessful attempts to legalize medical cannabis in a more conventional manner in recent sessions, lawmakers were exploring whether there would be enough support to enact the more limited reform through a pilot program that would have launched later this year. The committee put an abrupt halt to that conversation.

“Our goal is to provide relief for patients, while also balancing the concerns of legislators and conservative Kansans,” Sam Jones, COO of Kansas Natural Remedies, which helped draft the legislation, said during the hearing.

“By being one of the last states to implement this, I think we’ve learned from other states,” he said. “We’ve tailored this bill to address the things that other states have gotten wrong and to address the things that they may have gotten right. This is a limited bill. This is supposed to be a pilot program. This is a proof of concept for medical cannabis to give proof that medical cannabis isn’t going to cause the end of society.”

Under the measure, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would be responsible for overseeing the program, and regulators could only approve licenses for four vertically integrated cannabis operators across the state. Pharmacies could also be permitted to sell medical marijuana.

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.

There are a number of restrictions built into the legislation, including a ban on smoking marijuana products. While the bill also says that vaporizing cannabis would be prohibited, there’s separate language stating that flower could be inhaled through non-combustable vaporization.

Cannabis pills, tinctures, patches and ointments would also be permitted. Patients could not buy more than 200 grams of cannabis for a 30-day supply.

There would be a 35 percent THC cap on cannabis products, which would be taxed at eight percent. The bill calls for 20 percent of tax revenue to go toward a “medical cannabis research and education fund,” and the remaining dollars would be deposited into the state general fund.

Patients would need to be 21 or older to access medical cannabis. Most state medical marijuana laws set the minimum age at 18, with certain exceptions for minors with serious medical conditions.

There would not be a home grow option for patients. And the legislation also appears to lack any equity provisions such as expungements for prior cannabis convictions or licensing prioritization for people most impacted under prohibition.

Jones, whose group drafted the legislation, was asked about the equity issue and recognized that such policies were not included because “our intent with this bill is to provide proof of concept for medical cannabis.”

“If this goes well, then we can implement a restrictive but more comprehensive medical cannabis bill. And at that time, I think social equity provision be appropriate,” he said.

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.

Kelsey Olson, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, told the committee that that specific provision is “problematic,” pointing out that it’s in “direct conflict” with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy that prohibits licensed hemp farmers from also growing marijuana, regardless of the state’s law.

“Once the hemp licensee begins producing medical cannabis, they could no longer grow industrial hemp without having violated the USDA final rule,” she said. “We could easily be neutral if the connections with hemp were removed.”

Medical cannabis operators that the department licenses would be able to launch beginning on July 1 of this year. The pilot program would sunset on July 1, 2029.

Michael Snyder, a military veteran, testified at Thursday’s hearing about the need to provide the veteran population with an alternative to opioids.

“Why are we so concerned about medical cannabis when Kansans are dying every day from overdosing on a prescribed narcotic that turns patients into addicts?” he said. “This is the real issue. A vote against medical cannabis is a vote for continued opioid prescription addiction, overdose and needless suffering.”

Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) Director Tony Mattivi, meanwhile, 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 that state-level reform is associated with increased rates of opioid overdoses.

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

After the bill’s introduction, the Kansas Cannabis Chamber of Commerce (KCCC) was quick to criticize the legislation, which was previewed last month by Senate President Ty Masterson (R).

In a statement following Thursday’s committee hearing, Masterson said he’s “consistently indicated that the issue of medical marijuana has matured to a point it warrants serious discussion.”

“This is particularly true given the federal government is considering rescheduling or even de-scheduling the drug,” he said. “In the legislative process, hearings are the appropriate way to have those discussions so any proposal can be vetted thoroughly, and I appreciate Senator Thompson for being willing to conduct the hearing on SB 555.”

“Unfortunately, the hearing demonstrated there were concerns with the bill presented and approaches that deviate from that framework.,” the Senate president said. “As such, it was appropriately tabled and I thank the committee for its work. Discussions will no doubt continue in future sessions, especially if and when the federal government acts.”

KCCC President Erren Wright said that the “extreme limitations on medical cannabis in this bill are going to hurt more people than they help.”

This medical cannabis 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.

Meanwhile, a separate bill 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.

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.

Last year, the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee held several hearings on a medical cannabis reform bill, but members ultimately voted to table it. The panel is now sponsoring the medical cannabis pilot program measure.

After the Senate committee shelved the medical marijuana bill, 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, but that did not happen before the end of the legislative session.

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.”

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.”

The governor 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 Mike Latimer.
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