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Top GOP Kansas Senator Says Medical Marijuana Is ‘Not A Priority’ As Committee Crafts Bill, Prompting Democratic Pushback



As a Kansas special committee works to prepare a medical marijuana legalization bill for the 2023 session with another meeting coming up this week, a spokesperson for the top GOP senator said the issue is “not a priority”—prompting pushback from House Democratic leadership.

The spokesperson told the Wichita Eagle 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.

“Certainly, Senator Masterson believes any legislation the Senate would consider must have safeguards to ensure it is truly treated as medicine and not as a vehicle for recreational use,” the staffer told The Kansas City Star.

That prompted House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer (D) to issue a statement criticizing the Senate president on Friday.

“Let’s be clear: Legalizing medical marijuana is a priority for countless Kansans, including myself, and Senate President Masterson is wrong,” he said. “He is ignoring widespread, bipartisan cooperation in the House; repeated calls for movement from industries across the state, and public energy.”

The House approved a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, but the momentum hasn’t been confined to the chamber. In fact, a special committee comprised of House and Senate members—appointed by legislative leaders—held the first of three scheduled meetings last week to hear from state agencies as they work to craft reform legislation for next year’s session.

The Special Committee on Medical Marijuana, which a bicameral legislative panel formed in June, will meet again on Wednesday to take comments on the “public policy implications” of medical marijuana legalization from supporters, opponents and neutral parties.

“Hopefully the work of this committee will help us to quickly move a bill through both chambers next year, and get I signed by the governor,” Sawyer said. “Kansans in pain should not have to wait any longer for relief they need. Kansas House Democrats are ready and willing and anxious to work with Republicans to get the job done.”

The third and final meeting of the committee is set for November 16, when members will discuss and finalize the committee’s proposal for the full legislature for the 2023 session.

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.

Sawyer 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 earlier 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 Senate Federal and State Affairs Chairman Robert Olson (R) 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.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R), who is running to unseat Kelly in the governor’s office, has previously expressed opposition to marijuana reform but more recently has acknowledged growing public support.

“Ultimately public opinion decides these issues and I think it’s clear to anybody watching that public opinion in this country is moving generally in the direction of more permissiveness,” he said.

A campaign spokesperson told the Kansas City Star that he is now open to limited reforms covering “narrow circumstances like late stage cancer patients and veterans with PTSD.”

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