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Legalizing medical marijuana is popular in Kansas, so why hasn’t it happened yet?

Jars of cannabis line the shelves at a legal cannabis dispensary in Missouri.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jars of cannabis line the shelves at a legal cannabis dispensary in Missouri. While it's unlikely Kansas will have legal recreational marijuana any time soon, there's a new push to legalize it for medical use.

Kansas is one of only a few states with no legal medical or recreational marijuana. Some people are optimistic about a medical cannabis deal this year.

Activists at the Statehouse are renewing a push for state lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana in Kansas. While Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and many state legislators from both parties support the concept, lawmakers have yet to take up the issue this session.

The American Civil Liberties Union held an online day of action for marijuana legalization earlier this month. During the event, activists expressed disappointment that Kansas does not have legal medical marijuana, nearly three years after the state House passed a bill that would have provided for it.

“I’m here in open-mouth amazement that we are still discussing passing a medical marijuana bill,” said Cheryl Kumberg, president of the Kansas Cannabis Coalition. “It just is the same excuses all these years. The same rhetoric from opponents and legislators.”

In 2021, the Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill with bipartisan support, but it was never taken up by the Senate. That bill would have legalized the prescription of smokeless cannabis products for patients with diseases and disorders including cancer, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

At the time, some Republicans opposed the bill because they wanted more details on dosage and distribution, or because they didn’t want to conflict with the federal government, which continues to prohibit marijuana possession.

Some House lawmakers have said they’re optimistic for a discussion on medical marijuana in the coming weeks, but they’re hoping the Senate will take the lead.

“I think it does have some traction. I know folks are talking about it,” said Republican Rep. Nick Hoheisel, who voted in favor of the 2021 medical marijuana bill. “Everybody’s becoming more aware of it, and how popular medical marijuana is in Kansas currently and how well it polls.”

Republican Senate President Ty Masterson is one of the key lawmakers who has opposed medical marijuana in past sessions, but he recently said he’s open to a discussion.

“I’m actually open to true medical marijuana or to palliative care,” he told KCUR in December. “I am open to that. I am not saying no. I’m just saying we don’t have any real studies on dosing and distribution.”

It remains to be seen whether the Senate will take up the issue this year. The governor would most likely sign a bill if lawmakers sent one to her desk.

Recent polling by Fort Hays State University indicates about two-thirds of Kansans support legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana.

Some cities, like Lawrence, have effectively legalized possession of marijuana by no longer criminally prosecuting it.

Kelly Rippel, co-founder of Kansans for Hemp and also part of the Kansas Cannabis Coalition, said that de facto legalization is not the preferred approach.

“It leaves inconsistency around enforcement, not only in communities, but also the district attorneys in counties,” Rippel said. “And they may not charge — that’s fine — but we need to have something on the books that actually says, ‘We are not going to criminalize this, especially for personal possession.’”

So far, at least 38 states have legalized medical cannabis in some form or another, along with Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories. Recreational marijuana is legal in 24 states, including the neighboring states of Missouri and Colorado.

Kansas has legalized CBD, but cannabis products containing high amounts of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana – remain illegal.

Many Democratic-controlled states have legalized medical or recreational marijuana through the typical legislative process. But in Washington, D.C., and 13 states, including neighboring Missouri, voters legalized it through ballot initiatives. Those are direct questions to voters prompted by a citizen-led petition.

In Kansas, there is no legal framework for ballot initiatives.

Daniel Caudill reports on the Kansas Statehouse and government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can email him at dcaudill@ku.edu.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Daniel Caudill reports on Kansas state government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service.