Two Kansas lawmakers walking long road to legalizing medicinal marijuana

Quest about health, tax revenue, social justice — not getting high

In a conversation for the Kansas Reflector podcast, Rep. Gail Finney and Sen. David Haley are optimistic the 2021 Legislature can advance a bill legalizing medical marijuana. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gail Finney and David Haley were the target of jokes and caustic blowback years ago after suggesting Kansas pass a law legalizing medical use of cannabis products.

Both had family members regurgitate propaganda reminiscent of “Reefer Madness” while expressing surprise they would take a pro-pot position while federal government categorically listing marijuana as equally dangerous to public health as heroin.

“I remember when I first introduced the first bill in 2009,” said Finney, a Democratic state representative from Wichita. “My mother-in-law was like, oh, she was just so disgusted … that I would do something like that. And I had people emailing me like, ‘Have I lost my mind?’ ”

Haley, who represents a Kansas City, Kansas, district in the Kansas Senate, said his mother changed her mind after told by a Maryland oncologist it could alleviate discomfort of cancer treatment.

“My mother turned and looked at me after she’d been saying for years, ‘What’s wrong with you, my former assistant prosecutor son in bringing this?’ Haley said. “That was the most redeeming feature. To have her look at me and say, ‘My son gets it.’ ”

Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat, is an an advocate of medicinal marijuana legislation for more than a decade and is convinced more Kansans are comfortable with reforming state law to accommodate change adopted in more than three dozen states. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat, is an an advocate of medicinal marijuana legislation for more than a decade and is convinced more Kansans are comfortable with reforming state law to accommodate change adopted in more than three dozen states. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Despite action to legalize medical marijuana in more than three dozen states, law enforcement and factions of the medical community have succeeded in deterring comparable reform in Kansas.

State legislators did pass statutes authorizing hemp production for industrial purposes. CBD products, which don’t feature the get-high THC, is available in retail stores.

Criminal penalties in Kansas have been trimmed during the past several by adjustment of state law and by adoption of city ordinances. Under certain circumstances, Kansans who marijuana-based medicines in other states for treatment of severely disabled children have an “affirmative defense,” not quite a get-of-jail statute, if encountered by police.

In Kansas, the next logical hurdle would be legalization of medical marijuana. There was movement in that direction early in the 2020 legislative session, which was cut short in March when lawmakers decided COVID-19 made it unsafe for them to remain in Topeka.

A key distinction in the current debate is that Gov. Laura Kelly pledged to sign a medicinal marijuana bill.

“We have more Kansans much more aware, much more educated and informed about the issue, and much more supportive,” said Finney, who has advocated for medicinal and recreational marijuana reforms.

Haley, who has sought decriminalization of marijuana possession, said Kansas didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to implement a well-regulated, properly taxed system of making available medicinal marijuana to the 3 million residents of the state.

State Sen. David Haley, a Democrat serving a Kansas City, Kan., district, said legalization of medicinal marijuana could deliver health benefits to Kansas, create jobs in agriculture and other fields while generating much-needed revenue for state government. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
State Sen. David Haley, a Democrat serving a Kansas City, Kan., district, said legalization of medicinal marijuana could deliver health benefits to Kansas, create jobs in agriculture and other fields while generating much-needed revenue for state government. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

“The best practices should be incorporated in a bill that will find wide range of support,” he said. “It’s time we acknowledge that some of our citizens are actually using medical marijuana, even though they may have to travel to another state to get it. We’re actually using it and we’re losing out on revenues.”

Haley said the benefit wouldn’t fall simply to the consumers who take the products for their health. The state’s agricultural foundation can be relied upon to deliver a superior marijuana crop to companies engaged in manufacturing medicinal products, he said.

A wide range of manufacturing, transportation and other commercial businesses will be required to formulate this new piece of the economy,  he said.

Legalization of medicinal marijuana would provide a modest amount of tax revenue to the cash-strapped state government, but the precise figure wouldn’t be known until boundaries of the statute were decided.

If nothing were done to modify state law, Kansas could find itself surrounded by medicinal marijuana states. Nebraska voters had planned to decide Nov. 3 whether to change its constitution to allow sales, possession and consumption of medical marijuana for serious health conditions. However, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered the amendment removed from the ballot because it violated the state’s single-subject rule. Under the proposed amendment, the products would be available to children with consent of a parent or guardian and a health professional. Anyone over 18 years of age with a medical condition would be allowed to use, possess, purchase and produce marijuana.

Colorado long ago legalized medicinal and recreational marijuana, while Missouri and Oklahoma have adopted medicinal marijuana laws.

Finney said law enforcement agencies would likely continue to oppose reform in Kansas. She said it had to do, in part, with the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize property — cash, vehicles and other property — from people accused of drug possession. The revenue has been rolled into law enforcement budgets for many years and would be missed, she said.

Legalization of marijuana would take a bite out of that steady revenue source, but it wouldn’t eliminate it because the illegal black market would still be subject to enforcement action.

Medical marijuana reform in Kansas could have a significant impact on the number of people incarcerated, Haley said. The American Civil Liberties Union reported that in 2018 a Black person in Kansas was nearly five times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white person.

“It’s ridiculous how we clog, or how law enforcement has clogged, the system,” Haley said. “Black, brown or broke, those are the three that are most prosecuted, are disproportionately so, for these crimes.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.