Lawmakers say marijuana is workforce issue, urge caution in legalization discussion

Also discussed: Kansas college attendance rates have declined steadily since 2015

By: - November 25, 2022 1:40 pm

State Sen. Virgil Peck, shown in February, said employers were wary of hiring workers who couldn't pass a drug test, due to safety concerns. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector))

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers said marijuana legalization, political stances and state funding were potential roadblocks in addressing the state’s severe workforce shortage.

Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, said the Special Committee on Workforce Development needed to talk about marijuana legalization before lawmakers discussed it during the upcoming legislative session. 

Lawmakers passed a motion to make a recommendation that the legislature “proceed with caution” with marijuana legislation during the Monday committee hearing, by a 4-3 vote. 

Peck brought up the issue, saying the idea came to him earlier in that day while taking a shower. 

“I didn’t think of it until taking a shower this morning, about 7:30. It came to me that that plays into workforce development,” he said.

Peck said marijuana was a significant problem in his part of the state, with employers not willing to hire employees who couldn’t pass a drug test. He said that marijuana was a safety liability, and could impede business where workers had to use heavy machinery and could be injured. 

“Employers tell me constantly, we’ve got jobs going wanting, we can’t get the workers because they can’t pass a drug screening and various other things,” Peck said. 

Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, said he agreed with Peck that people who imbibed marijuana could cause problems in the workplace. 

Other lawmakers at the meeting said they weren’t able to vote on the recommendation, as the issue had not been discussed before the meeting. Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, abstained from the vote. 

“I think my only concern is we’re inserting something that hasn’t been vetted in this committee at the last minute,” Dietrich said. “And I understand what you’re saying, it’s just not an appropriate position for us to take as a committee.”

Medical marijuana has long been a controversial topic in Kansas, with many advocating for the drug as a pain relief substitute that is less addictive than opioids

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, opposed the recommendation, saying that legislators didn’t have to be drug tested, so neither should Kansas workers. 

“I don’t like the idea of imposing something on the people, setting different rules for us than them. So that’s a big issue, and I also have concerns, because I think — in fact, I know, medicinal and recreational cannabis will be helpful to a business development, in particular in the greater Kansas City area, where this is already legalized in Missouri,” Clayton said. 

At the hearing, legislators also discussed Kansas’ declining college attendance rates for public and private institutions. 

A report presented to the committee found that in 2015, 54.1% of Kansas high school graduates went to public, private or out-of-state colleges. In 2020, that rate fell to 44.8%, with a slight decline in attendance every year. 

The report also found that Kansas high school graduates were less ready for college, with a drop in the number of students meeting standardized testing benchmarks. 

In a comparison of ACT benchmarks from 2013 to 2021, 72% of students met the English ACT benchmark in 2o13, while only 53% of graduates in 2021 met the standard. Math ACT benchmark rates fell from 51$ in 2013 to 32% in 2021. 

Recommendations to address the issue of falling college attendance  included offering more financial aid to students, recruiting out-of-state students and enrolling more traditionally underserved Kansan groups. 

Tarwater and Peck said they believed the drop in Kansas public universities could be linked to the liberal nature of these institutions. 

“I’m wondering myself if it may not have to do with the fact that Kansans are still basically conservative-minded, and our in-state private colleges are not teaching some of the liberal woke things to our students that our public universities are teaching,” Peck said.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.