The chairs and sleeping bags on the north steps of the Kansas Statehouse were empty Wednesday morning.
Raymond Schwab, who has been camping there for weeks to protest the state’s removal of his children from his custody, had temporarily moved to the opposite side of the Capitol for a rally with other marijuana legalization advocates.
Schwab claims the state removed his children because he uses marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the U.S. Navy. At the rally, he announced the end of a 17-day hunger strike and the beginning of a federal lawsuit against Gov. Sam Brownback, the head of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and other state officials.
The suit, similar to one filed days earlier by Garden City mother Shona Banda, asserts Schwab has a constitutional right to use medical marijuana.
While advocates in more than 30 other states have been successful in getting some level of medical marijuana legalized by lobbying their state representatives, the issue remains almost a non-starter in the Kansas Legislature.
Now Kansans like Schwab and Banda instead are looking to social media pressure, civil disobedience and the court system.
When asked at the rally why more advocates like her seem to be giving up on the legislative process, former gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Winn was succinct — and loud.
“It doesn’t work,” Winn said, drawing nods of agreement from the crowd of several dozen people.
Winn has made herself a leader in Kansas’ marijuana decriminalization movement following a surprisingly strong showing against Brownback in the 2014 Republican primary.
At the time her son, Kyle Carriker, was facing murder charges for his alleged involvement in a drug deal that became violent. A Sedgwick County jury found him not guilty last year.
Winn led Wednesday’s rally and news conference. California attorney Matt Pappas, who specializes in defending medical marijuana patients and is advising Banda and Schwab, also attended. So did Cheryl Shuman, a Beverly Hills native who calls herself “the world’s first cannabis branding personality http://cherylshuman.com/ .”
DCF disputes Schwab’s version of what led to his children’s removal, saying it does not remove children solely because of marijuana use. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Schwab and his wife have had other run-ins with law enforcement.
Winn plans another rally Friday focused on protesting DCF, legalizing medical marijuana and fighting drug prohibition.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing split between advocates like her who are holding out for broad-based medical marijuana legalization and a small group of parents who are still trying to work with legislators to come up with a far more limited bill that might be able to get enough votes to pass.
Disagreement on marijuana oil measure
The only medical marijuana measure to gain approval in either chamber of the Kansas Legislature remains in limbo while legislators are on break before the veto session, which begins April 27.
Legislators from House and Senate health committees have differences on a number of areas within two bills. One, which passed the House, would legalize only low-THC marijuana oil and only for treating seizure disorders. Another, which has passed a Senate committee, would allow the use of “hemp preparations” for seizures and a few other conditions.
One area of disagreement between the two bills is on the amount of THC — the ingredient in marijuana that causes the psychoactive effect or “high” coveted by recreational users — that should be allowed.
Supporters of the legislation, including its lead legislative proponent, Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence, have said repeatedly that 3 percent THC — the House bill’s limit — is not enough to produce the high.
But several opponents disputed that during a March 10 hearing in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Children’s Mercy Hospital officials submitted testimony that stated 3 percent was “a concentration more than adequate for the euphoric effects of THC to occur.”
The Senate bill allows no more than 1 percent THC.
According to data from the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project, marijuana with 3 percent THC would be slightly less potent than the average plants confiscated by law enforcement in the early 1990s but several times weaker than the average marijuana now found on the streets and at legal dispensaries in the United States.
Another topic of disagreement at legislative hearings was the medical risks and benefits of using cannabis oil to treat seizures.
Eric Voth, a Topeka doctor and prominent opponent of marijuana legalization, said studies have proven that the controlled substance poses risks to cognition and memory.
But supporters of the oil bill argue that cannabis is significantly safer than many of the legal prescription drugs their children are taking, and a growing body of scientific evidence backs their claims that it could be effective in treating persistent seizures.
The Senate committee hearing came to a head when Beth Tolentino, a physician assistant from Manhattan, told the committee she was successfully treating her son’s seizures with hemp oil — an admission she said could lead to the loss of her medical license.
Tolentino said she ordered the oil and had it shipped from a company in Colorado, where marijuana is legalized for medicinal and recreational use. She emphasized that she does not give it to any of her patients.
Tolentino said she believed it was legal under federal law to receive the product through the mail because of a provision in the U.S. Agriculture Act of 2014 that pertains to “industrial hemp” with 0.3 percent THC or less. But she said Kansas state law is currently a “gray area.”
Senator seeking clinical trials
Law enforcement groups have lobbied strongly against the oil bill, saying they fear it represents a first step on the road to full legalization of marijuana.
In response to their concerns, Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, is seeking a compromise: clinical trials of cannabis oil for seizure sufferers at one of the state’s research institutions.
In the past, institutions have been reluctant to take up such research because of marijuana’s status as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Schedule I controlled substance. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released new guidance in early February, saying it “supports researchers who conduct adequate and well-controlled clinical trials which may lead to the development of safe and effective marijuana products to treat medical conditions.”
Kelly said this week she has been in talks with officials at the University of Kansas Medical Center, who said they could partner with Children’s Mercy to have cannabis oil trials up and running by July and completed within six months.
“Apparently it is strictly a funding issue at this point,” she said.
Kelly said the researchers have requested $1 million in state funds — a tall task for a Legislature that has been in a perpetual budget crisis for more than a year.
The odds of finding the money during the veto session are “pretty slim,” Kelly said, but she’s going to try.
“We need to do something for those families,” she said.
Clinical trials limited to seizure treatment would not end the state’s debate over medical marijuana.
The lawsuits brought by Schwab and Banda, who has Crohn’s disease, highlight the wide range of conditions that cannabis proponents believe the plant is well-equipped to treat.
Dawn Brooks, a Topeka resident who attended Wednesday’s rally, said her 45-year-old husband needs access to cannabis for a variety of maladies, including fibromyalgia and Tourette’s syndrome.
Brooks said the plant has been unfairly demonized — in part due to a “War on Drugs” that an aide to former President Richard Nixon said was intended to criminalize Nixon adversaries in the black community and in the anti-war movement, according to a story in Harper’s Magazine.
Brooks belongs to a medical marijuana lobbying group called Bleeding Kansas. She said members of the group regularly visit the Statehouse to talk with legislators and will continue to do so.
But she understands why people like Schwab have given up on that route.
“They don’t have time, they don’t want to hear (it),” Brooks said of legislators. “When they do make time for you, it’s a very short amount of time, maybe five minutes. They tell you right up front that the answer is no, they’re not going to do it. Then they listen to you. And sometimes they’re actually listening, and sometimes I think they’re waiting for you to stop talking so they can tell you they’re done (with you).”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso