‘A little bit nerve-wracking’: Supporters of medical marijuana hold hope for Kansas law

TOPEKA — The medical marijuana debate has been a hard-fought issue for years, heating up as surrounding states passed some form of legalization.

But despite several forms of marijuana legislation currently under discussion, advocates aren’t sure of success.

Kansas remains one of three states left in the country that does not permit some form of medical marijuana use. Missouri legalized recreational marijuana last year.

George Hanna, co-director of the Kansas National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana (known as NORML), and Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, have been lobbying for legalization for years. During a recording for the Kansas Reflector podcast, the two discussed ongoing hurdles to legalizing medical marijuana and their own work toward legalization.

Hanna, a disabled veteran, ran for a Kansas House of Representatives seat as a Tecumseh Democrat in 2018. He prioritized medical cannabis access in his campaign because he felt veterans shouldn’t have to jeopardize their benefits in order to use marijuana to help with medical issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. After he lost the race, Hanna continued medical marijuana advocacy work.

“For a state that prides itself on being so independent in libertarian views, to have something like this just shut down without listening to the other half of the state is disheartening,” Hanna said.

Holscher said she hadn’t planned on advocating for medical marijuana when she first entered the Legislature in 2016.

“For my background, this was an area that was kind of taboo, so to speak,” Holscher said. “My father’s a former Marine, and based upon my upbringing, and that background, this was kind of a taboo area. So I was not very well versed.”

She began to address the issue after hearing from concerned constituents, and discovered legalization had a lot of support from physicians, businesses and veterans.

Sen. Cindy Holscher sits behind a soundboard at a desk in front of a microphone
Sen. Cindy Holscher says medical marijuana legalization is supported by many Kansans. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Holscher said misinformation was holding back legalization efforts. The Kansas House approved medical marijuana legalization in 2021, but a bill that would have allowed for the cultivation, distribution, processing, dispensing and purchase of marijuana and paraphernalia died in a Senate committee during the last days of the legislative session.

“I saw the benefits and was struck by how it felt in Kansas, as well as in other parts of the country, we were so bogged down with myth and some of the propaganda from decades ago,” Holscher said.

To fully understand all aspects of medical marijuana legalization before attempting new legislation, lawmakers took part in a 2022 special committee on medical marijuana.

This legislative session, several marijuana bills have been introduced in the Legislature, such as Senate Bill 171. The bill, which was sponsored by eight Democrats, would legalize marijuana use for veterans with a valid medical card. The bill also would allow for the cultivation, distribution, sale and use of medical cannabis.

Another bill, Senate Bill 135, known as the medical cannabis regulation act, would regulate the cultivation, processing, distribution, sale and use of medical cannabis. A hearing on the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

The House passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana two years ago, but the Senate refused to take action on any marijuana proposal during the two-year session.

This year, Holscher said, House leadership told the Senate to take the lead.

“It is a little bit nerve-wracking,” Holscher said. “Each day that goes by, we’re a day closer to the session coming to an end. And we have to have a bill moving to be able to make this happen. Like I said, if the House is waiting on us, that makes timing even more critical.”

Holscher said she was hopeful there would be action before the session ended. Hanna said he wasn’t sure about any form of legalization going through this legislative session, but knew he and other voters would be paying attention.

“I do believe that the majority of our elected leaders in the capitol do have the best interest of Kansas in mind,” Hanna said. “But those that continue to ignore us, as a voter, I certainly pay attention to these things and vote accordingly when I get into the booth.”

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