Politics Of Pot Stall Cannabis Oil, Sentencing Bills In Kansas

Mar 27, 2015

For the past month, Kansas Rep. John Wilson has told everyone who will listen that his medical marijuana bill is different.

Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence, proposed a bill to allow low-THC cannabis oil to be used specifically to treat seizure disorders. He was inspired to do so by parents in his district who moved to Colorado to access the treatment for their young son.

“I’ve done everything I can to make this an uninteresting medical bill,” Wilson said in an interview this week.

That approach was successful in getting a committee to pass the bill, a first for medical marijuana legislation in Kansas.

But that’s as far as it has gone.

Wilson’s bill and another related to sentencing for marijuana possession have become bogged down by the politics of pot. Both are still alive, but both face reluctance from legislators worried about the larger national movement to decriminalize or legalize marijuana possession. 

Patchwork of laws frustrates researchers

Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, although the safety and effectiveness of the plant in treating disease remains largely unproven.

Anecdotal evidence suggests low-THC oil with high amounts of cannabidiol may have some benefits for children with certain seizure disorders, but controlled studies to determine proper dosing and potential risks are lacking.

At the national level, the patchwork of state and federal laws has complicated the issue for medical researchers. Orrin Devinsky and Daniel Friedman, physicians with New York University’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center who are working on a controlled trial to study cannabis oil, last year questioned the wisdom of states allowing children to use it before the evidence is in.

But the doctors also criticized the federal government for keeping marijuana on the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances, which has prevented study and data collection.

“It is troubling that while few barriers exist for parents to give their children marijuana in Colorado, there are significant federal roadblocks preventing doctors from studying it in a rigorous scientific manner,” they wrote in a New York Times opinion article.

Until more research can be done, the doctors said that for children who have not benefited from traditional medications and who live in states where cannabis oil is legal, “compassionate use is reasonable.”

‘Fear of full-scale legalization’

Wilson’s bill is restricted to legalizing only cannabis products with too little THC to produce the “high” coveted by recreational users. Hearings on it have focused on families who have exhausted treatment options in trying to quell the dozens or even hundreds of seizures their children suffer every day.

It’s a marked difference from much broader bills introduced the last several years that would allow almost any form of marijuana to treat potentially any ailment. It’s even further removed from legislation passed in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska to legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

But any marijuana-related bill carries with it the possibility of amendments for broader legalization if it reaches the House floor.

Wilson said he would oppose such amendments and has been working to get assurances from his House colleagues that they would not offer them.

But it’s a specter he said is still holding back his bill.

“It’s just the fear of full-scale legalization, I think,” Wilson said.

Sentencing bill caught up in Wichita vote

Fear of bolstering decriminalization efforts also is delaying a bill to make marijuana possession a felony after the third offense rather than the second.

Rep. John Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee, introduced the bill as a way to slow the state’s burgeoning prison population. The state’s prisons are almost at capacity and, at a time when money to build and staff more prisons is tight, Rubin said the state needs to prioritize its inmates.

But Rubin’s bill ran up against a Wichita ballot initiative that would decriminalize marijuana possession, making it instead a civil violation punishable by $50 fine.

That city vote is scheduled for April 7, and Rubin said action on his sentencing bill has been delayed until after that.

“Some representatives from Wichita asked that until the ballot initiative is resolved, we not move forward on (House Bill) 2459,” Rubin said. “The concern is that if the state approves anything lessening penalties at the state level, that lends support to the initiative.”

Rubin said he opposes the Wichita measure and noted that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has issued an opinion stating that the ballot question contradicts state law and his office would sue on behalf of the state if it passes.

Delaying action on the bill until after April 7 means the Legislature would have to take it up during the “veto session” that ostensibly is reserved for finalizing the budget and addressing bills vetoed by the governor.

Rubin said House leaders have told him they plan to do that.

“It is still very much alive,” he said.

Another sentencing bill passed out of Rubin’s House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee is dead, though.

House Bill 2052 would have allowed prosecutors to seek diversion for drug offenders who agree to participate in a treatment program. It was recommended by the Kansas Sentencing Commission as another way to stem the prison population and reduce reoffense rates.

But House leadership did not bring it up for a vote before the “turnaround” deadline or send it to a committee exempt from that deadline.

Rubin said he did not think the bill died because of marijuana-related politics but said it was “just a victim of limited time.”

“I support it. I think it’s a good bill,” Rubin said. “But there are a lot of higher-priority items I need to fight for this year.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.