TOPEKA — Three years ago, April Hatch sat at her grandmother’s bedside, listening as she agonizingly withdrew from prescription pain medications and told Hatch she thought she was going to die.
Hatch, a registered nurse for 16 years, knew her grandmother would not die that day from the opioid prescribed for her osteoarthritis. Her grandmother had suffered from the condition for 12 years and had just stopped using the medication. Now, Hatch said, a 90-year-old woman was forced into what were likely the worst two days of her life.
In her experience as a nurse, Hatch said, she has seen countless more patients suffer through opioid addiction and withdrawal as her grandmother did.
That is why, on Wednesday, Hatch called on members of the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs, chaired by Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, to favorably pass a bill creating the Kansas medical marijuana regulation act. Access to cannabis products could have the potential to save people from the suffering her grandmother experienced, she said.
“Your duty is to protect your citizens and my duty as a nurse is to protect my patients,” Hatch told legislators. “I would like for you to allow all of the grandmothers in Kansas to make their own informed health-care decisions and to decide if cannabis could be an alternative for them.”
On the first day of testimony on the future of medical marijuana in Kansas, proponents such as Hatch championed the bill as a necessary step to address the opioid crisis and many medical conditions ailing Kansans. Neutral and opponent testimony on the proposal will be provided Thursday.
Kansas is currently one of three states yet to have legalized marijuana in some form but that could all change if this bill is passed. Under the act registered patients with certain qualifying medical conditions and their caregivers would be allowed to obtain a physician’s recommendation to possess and use marijuana for treatment.
The secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would oversee the registration and issuance of ID cards to patients. The health secretary would also oversee licensing for cultivators and laboratories.
Methods of consumption available for the patient’s benefit include oils, tinctures, edibles and plant material. Smoking, combustion or vaporization of medical marijuana would be prohibited under the act.
John Consalvo, a representative of Green Healthcare Solutions Kansas, said in 37 years of clinical experience in emergency medicine, he has seen how cannabis can benefit patients with chronic conditions, in part by diverting them from opioids.
“I have not seen another medication that has such a wide range of applications which in my opinion virtually borders on the definition of a miracle drug,” Consalvo said. “And quite frankly, we have only scratched the surface and seen the tip of the iceberg of what is possible in marijuana.”
Legalizing medical use would also allow universities in Kansas to study the plant and determine other uses, he said.
Beyond the medical benefits, proponents touted the potential financial assistance to the state’s bottom line. The act would establish taxes and fees for purchase and production.
George Mahaffey Jr., general counsel for Green Healthcare Solutions Kansas, said a reasonable excise tax would result in significant economic benefit to the state while ensuring businesses are not hurt, and patients are not driven to the black market.
He noted Oklahoma generated more than $80 million on a 7% excise tax.
“Oklahoma is generating significant tax revenue while creating thousands of new, good-paying jobs — the same thing will happen in Kansas,” Mahaffey Jr. said. “The bottom line is, from everything I have seen, Kansas is poised to create one of the premier medical cannabis programs in the country that will result in significant benefits to patients, the state … and the local business community.”
For George Hanna, co-director of the Kansas National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana, the struggles with pain and fear of addiction began when he was severely injured in late 1989 while training during active duty in the submarine force. Since then, he has undergone more than 20 surgeries.
On two separate occasions, Hanna said, he has driven out to an abandoned field with a Smith and Wesson intending to end the “demoralizing pain.” In the past 10 years, he said, he has lost three friends to suicide, all three due to depression and two with service-connected PTSD.
Access to medical cannabis could aid those suffering from PTSD or ailing from severe injuries from their service. In the end, he thinks it could save lives.
According to a study published in the American Public Journal of Health, legalizing medical marijuana can reduce suicide rates by 5% among the general population.
“Veterans of all ages and ideologies are in favor of medical cannabis more than any other demographic,” said Hanna. “Every veteran’s organization, representing every generation and political perspective, has overwhelmingly come out in support of safe access. I personally have had several physicians, within the VA itself, privately support medical cannabis.”
Like Hanna, Todd Scattini, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, said he is tired of burying Kansas veterans who have suffered from PTSD and committed suicide. Veterans are in the middle of a health care and addiction crisis, he said.
He said this epidemic could be addressed, in part, through a proper medical marijuana system.
“We’re literally hemorrhaging heroes and this must stop,” Scattini said. “We will all be judged by how we address the opioid crisis and the veteran suicide crisis. Before us really lies an opportunity for veterans and families in Kansas.”