Medical marijuana stalled in Kansas for years. Here’s why it could finally move forward

Kansas Democrats tried to force a vote on legal marijuana last week.

Rep. Silas Miller, a Wichita Democrat, offered an amendment on a fentanyl bill that would have legalized cannabis – finally moving Kansas away from among the strictest prohibitions in the country.

“We have been unable to have this discussion since I’ve been here,” Miller said.

But House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, urged his colleagues to shut Miller down.

“Everybody in this body knows that we’ve tackled this subject before and we’ll tackle it again,” Hawkins said, reminding House lawmakers that they’d been waiting the past three years for the Kansas Senate to take a position on medical marijuana.

“I think that they are getting closer and we’ll have our chance,” he said.

Kansas is one of 12 states in the U.S. that does not have legal medical or recreational marijuana. The Kansas House voted in 2021 to legalize medical marijuana. But despite broad support for legalization, the issue has repeatedly stalled in the state Senate, facing opposition from conservative Republicans.

That may be changing.

An opening has now emerged for an extremely restrictive medical program to gain support from Senate leadership. But the proposal may be so narrow it forfeits the support of the legalization’s loudest advocates who worry it will keep potential producers out of the business and fail to help the Kansans who need it the most.

Legal medical marijuana program in Kansas?

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, told The Star last week he is expecting to “start to have a real discussion” on the legalization in the coming weeks over a new proposal that would create a narrow program for medical marijuana.

“I’m expecting a bill to come in that is a lot more conservative dealing with pharmacies and things like that that I think would create an open discussion,” said Masterson, who has repeatedly said he will only support a very restrictive medical marijuana program. He said he’d heard the proposal may include a pilot program.

As Senate president, Masterson holds vast power to block or fast-track bills in the state Legislature.

A draft bill crafted by a Wichita hemp producer and obtained by The Star would establish a pilot program for medical marijuana, allowing no more than four operators to produce and sell cannabis and restricting those operators from producing any smokable product.

It’s unclear whether that bill, drafted by hemp cultivator company Kansas Natural Remedies, is the exact proposal Masterson expects or if the draft obtained by The Star is the final version. Kansas Natural Remedies’ Chief Operating Officer Sam Jones and the company’s lobbyist Michael O’Donnell, a former Republican state senator who was indicted on federal fraud charges related to his political campaigns but acquitted in 2019, did not respond to The Star’s request for comment.

But longtime advocates for legalization in Kansas worry Masterson will back a policy that will be so restrictive it leaves Kansans who would benefit from the program behind.

Concerns about the draft proposal

Rep. Ford Carr, a Wichita Democrat, said he was concerned that the draft proposal didn’t include language ensuring Black and indigenous business owners would obtain some of the licenses to operate in Kansas. Brett Harris, a board member at the Kansas Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, called a pilot program an outdated idea.

“Why does our state need to have training wheels when there are full medical and full recreational states around us?” he said. “A pilot bill is such a disservice to the patients of Kansas.”

Meanwhile, Kelly Rippel, an advisor for the Kansas Cannabis Coalition, said he and other advocates were speaking with Senate leadership about a separate medical marijuana proposal that could address Masterson’s concerns. Rippel said the Kansas Natural Remedies bill was rife with issues and could allow a small number of companies to corner the market.

“Getting something done is what’s important but we’re not going to just settle for a monopoly is what it comes down to,” Rippel said. “People are not going to be completely happy with everything but they’re not going to be surprised either.”

But time is running short in the Kansas legislative session. Lawmakers have just over five weeks remaining in Topeka.

Establishing a pilot program for marijuana, Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said, comes with a variety of difficulties that will take time to work through.

“I think that those who are promoting a pilot program don’t really understand all of the complexities that have to be part of a bill,” he said, predicting Kansas will go another year or more before lawmakers legalize marijuana.

The closer lawmakers get to the end of the legislative session the more likely it is that any medical marijuana proposal will be tied up in debates on other issues or used as a bargaining chip.

Support from Democrats will be essential for Kansas Republicans to pass any policy legalizing marijuana, Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, said that may not be guaranteed.

“We want a good bill,” Holscher said. “We don’t want to have something that’s just thrown out there late that has a lot of problems and is going to need a lot of cleanup.”