New Kansas Senate Bill To Create Limited Medical Marijuana Pilot Program Draws Early Criticism From Advocates

New Kansas Senate Bill To Create Limited Medical Marijuana Pilot Program Draws Early Criticism From Advocates

A newly filed Senate bill in Kansas would create a medical marijuana pilot program in the state—but the measure is facing early criticism from advocates who say it’s overly restrictive and would lead to unfair “monopolies” in the market while limiting patient access.

After several unsuccessful attempts to legalize medical cannabis in a more conventional manner in recent sessions—including through a bill that passed the full House of Representatives in 2021—the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee is now sponsoring new legislation, introduced on Monday, to authorize a pilot program that would launch later this year.

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. However, 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.

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.

Kevin Caldwell, a legislative manager at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday that while the bill has somewhat improved compared to earlier versions, “it is still lacking in providing a long term solution to patients who could benefit from medical cannabis as do the residents of 38 other states in the United States.”

“As this legislation appears to have backing of leadership, it does have a chance at passage but with it being so late in the legislative cycle there are concerns that debate will be limited as will the opportunity for compromise on key issues,” he said. “We certainly hope this is not another attempt to placate patients who have been effectively advocating for years for a medical program. They deserve the same legal and safe access enjoyed by a vast majority of Americans.”

The Kansas Cannabis Chamber of Commerce (KCCC) was also quick to criticize the legislation, which was previewed last month by Senate President Ty Masterson (R).

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

“Licensing only four people in the state to participate in growing, processing and dispensing medical cannabis is a disservice to the thousands of small business owners and advocates who have fought for medical cannabis,” she said. “Most importantly, it is a disservice to the Kansas patients who have waited longer than everyone else in the country to legally access this life saving medicine.”

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.

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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 Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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