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Perfectly Imperfect: Will Kansas Finally See Medical Marijuana Legalization? How Kansas Got Closer to Medical Marijuana Than Ever Before

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Above image credit: Heather Hobbs Steppe advocates and educates on the benefits of medical cannabis. (Emily Woodring | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Each year for the past decade, a medical marijuana bill has been proposed in the Kansas Legislature.

The bills have been written and supported by cannabis activists. They’ve been turned down for not including certain elements, or including other language that hints at adult use or recreational programs.

This year, the approach was different. Activists, industry professionals and legislators worked together to write a bill. They’ve moved forward with the mindset that no bill is a perfect bill.

Problems with the program can be fixed later, supporters said, but Kansans can benefit from a program now. Proponents contend failure to act soon could put Kansas at risk of being carved out of an emerging industry.

Almost Burned Out

Last year, the proposed medical bill, House Substitute 158, made some important progress. The Kansas House of Representatives passed the bill on the last day of its legislative session.

Heather Hobbs Steppe, president of the Kansas Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and founder of KC Hemp Co., has been advocating for cannabis (both marijuana and hemp) for the past four years.

“It was momentous,” Hobbs Steppe said of House Substitute 158’s progress last year.

Cannabis in Kansas

When the Kansas Legislature started its 2022 session, House Substitute 158 was set to face hearings, but was moved out of the committee just before they began. It had changed enough on the House floor and needed to be repackaged in a new bill.

Alarms sounded and many thought this meant the bill would linger in legislative limbo and never be brought to a vote.

“It was actually incredibly procedural and necessary,” Hobbs Steppe said. “Had those committee hearings continued on that bill, what we would have been debating is why we are talking about an altered bill, and not starting from the beginning on something new.”

Sen. Robert Olson, a Republican from Olathe, pulled together a new bill, Senate Bill 560, using language from past versions. Then he did something Hobbs Steppe said she’d never seen before.

Legislators and industry professionals worked hand-in-hand to write the bill.

“We went line by line through the bill … and we worked out our issues right there with (Olson), as industry professionals, as people who know this industry more than most of the legislators, and they listened,” Hobbs Steppe said.

The new bill was introduced in early March then sent to the federal and state affairs committee, where it had three days of hearings and currently waits for the end of legislative break for further action.

Marijuana vs. Hemp

Both marijuana and hemp come from the cannabis sativa plant. Hemp is defined as cannabis plants with less than 0.3% concentration of the intoxicating tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp can be grown for cannabidiol (CBD) extraction, or for the use of its fiber in textiles and more. Marijuana contains higher concentrations of THC and is typically grown for medicinal or recreational purposes.

“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen happen in Topeka,” Hobbs Steppe said. “It was just like, this is exactly how bills need to be handled, especially something so monumental and so big.”

The combination of the people of the industry with a politician was the secret sauce.

Daniel Shafton, an industry lobbyist who has worked with Kansas legislators interested in hemp and marijuana issues, said Senate Bill 560 is Chairman Olson’s bill. That’s why he believes it could pass this year after 10 years of failing.

In the past, Shafton said, an activist would bring up the bill but be unwilling to change the language with legislators. If there wasn’t language for a home grow program, they’d pull out.

It goes back to the no-bill-is-perfect mindset.

“If something being in a piece of legislation is going to cause too many people to have to vote against it, that can’t be in the legislation,” Shafton said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have 51% (of votes) it doesn’t matter how good your bill is.”

Is It Really Medicine?

Before Christine Gordon decided to move from Kansas to Colorado almost four years ago, doctors suggested she look into hospice care for her daughter, Autumn.

Autumn has Dravet Syndrome, a severe, genetic form of epilepsy. At 3 months old, she started having regular seizures. Gordon said she’d be in intensive care units five to six times a month, and by the time Autumn was 7 years old she was maxed out on several pharmaceutical drugs.

Young girl holds a cannabis plant in a backyard
Autumn Gordon (10) has relief from severe and frequent seizures thanks to the use of cannabis. (Contributed)

“They actually said that she was out of pharmaceutical options at that time, there was nothing left,” Gordon said.

Gordon knew she wasn’t out of options. She changed careers, raised enough money to relocate and moved from her home in Kansas to Colorado.

Since then, life has improved drastically for the family.

Autumn has been treated with medical cannabis for the more than three years she’s lived in Colorado, where it’s legal.

It’s been a year and half since her last trip to the emergency room. While pharmaceuticals rendered her “zombie-like” and non-verbal, she now has a 3,000-word vocabulary and is starting to read, write and cook simple meals like pancakes.

Autumn has a medical card in Colorado and takes, daily, a topical pen with a one-to-one blend of CBD and THC.

While the family lived in Kansas, CBD products were still hard to come by, and CBD alone didn’t help Autumn’s seizures.

“We’ve tried multiple CBD only brands,” Gordon said. “They were not effective. They did not control seizures. They did not help her behavior … It wasn’t until we started adding THC and other cannabinoids that we were able to see a significant difference.”

The entourage effect is a theory that cannabinoids like THC, CBD (and the more than 100 other known cannabinoids) work better in combination than they do in isolation.

Hobbs Steppe, who owns a CBD company, said it’s essential to explain the effect if legislators are to look at the plant as a medicine.

Explaining Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds which interact with our endocannabinoid system. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, these systems help to regulate many things including mood and sleep. THC and CBD are most commonly used cannabinoids today.

“Once we can educate (legislators) to show the entourage effect, (and that) having all of these cannabinoids together really is what makes it a medicine,” Hobbs Steppe said.

The people waiting on legalization are patients, Hobbs Steppe explained. It’s not people wanting to get high just to get high.

“We’re talking about patients, we’re talking about people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, terminal illnesses … If there’s something out there that can help you, you should have the right to explore that avenue, and that’s what we want to give to patients, that right, that opportunity,” Hobbs Steppe said.

Hobbs Steppe, who will soon teach a cannabis course at Johnson County Community College, said it’s always important to remember the history of cannabis in this country.

Cannabis once was widely used in medicines, and hemp farming was lush. Discrimination against Mexican immigrants and jazz musicians, who used the plant recreationally, meant cannabis (both marijuana and hemp) became less and less accessible and eventualy outlawed with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

A Business Insider article about the racist history of marijuana prohibition reports that following the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, Mexicans were nine times more likely, and Black people three times more likely, than white people to be arrested on the same drug charges.

Kelly Rippel, an advisor to the Kansas Cannabis Coalition with a background in public health, echoed the same sentiments as Hobbs Steppe.

The current system looks at marijuana usage from the wrong perspective and disproportionately affects people of color.

“We need to learn to live with drugs, as opposed to demonizing people who use drugs,” Rippel said. “It all stems from the fact that we are trying to criminalize people for what they put in their bodies, as opposed to addressing it from a public health, public safety (or) harm reduction standpoint.”

During the Senate hearings, some patients and doctors testified in support of the bill. Some used cannabis for chronic pain, which they said gave them relief without stripping them of their autonomy as opioids had. A woman with cerebral palsy testified that using medical cannabis in Missouri (where it’s legal) allowed her to speak with minimal stuttering and tremors.

If S.B. 560 passes, these conditions would qualify for medical cannabis. So would folks with cancer, Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic or debilitating conditions.

Imperfect Legislation

As of now, marijuana is still federally illegal, though 37 states have adopted some legalization and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE),which would decriminalize marijuana, has passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lack of federal approval for the drug is a big argument against implementation of a medical program in Kansas. Opponents said it needs to undergo the rigorous testing of the Food and Drug Administration first.

Shafton countered that argument by bringing up Dronabinol, the FDA approved, THC based drug that treats nausea in chemotherapy patients.

“I would love for cannabis to go through those channels and go through those trials, but that’s not an option we have because it’s federally illegal,” Shafton said. “In my opinion, it’s a state government’s job to enact legislation, sometimes before the federal government, when they’re not acting quick enough.”

Another argument against the bill comes from law enforcement officers wary of a more readily available substance they would have to patrol.

Shafton agreed that specific training and funding should be set aside for cannabis regulation.

Law enforcement, Shafton argues, should be included in conversations on the bill’s language to better include their perspectives.

“I want the industry, and the patient’s relationship and trust with police to be better,” Shafton said. “That means more patients, that means less arrests, that means a lot of wonderful things. But the issue is they come out and they testify against the bill without actually offering to help with language.”

He hopes to facilitate those very conversations during the current legislative break.

As it stands, the bill doesn’t allow for smokable or vaporized products to be sold under the medical program. Some argued against this in the hearings, saying smoking was the fastest way to get relief.

“I come from the approach where some legislation is better than no legislation,” Shafton said. “It’s impossible to amend something if it doesn’t exist, and it’s impossible for a patient to get relief for their cancer pain if there’s no law that allows dispensaries to be open.”

Shafton said it’s easy for those in the industry and familiar with cannabis jargon to roll their eyes at some of the questions posed by legislators about the bill. But it shows the importance of approaching the subject from an educational standpoint.

It’s why people like Hobbs-Steppe host cultivator and extraction tours. It helps to break down the stigma and show the professionalism of the industry.

“There are thousands of different topics and bills discussed and considered in every single session … To expect your representatives to have a deep understanding of all of them is naive and impossible,” Shafton said.

It all goes back to striking a balance between having enough right in the initial bill, and understanding that refinement will come as the state builds a program.

“In every single state that’s passed medical marijuana, they have amended their medical marijuana bill in every single session since its origin,” Shafton said. “So I anticipate that next session and the following, and the following and following, and following for quite some years, we will make changes.”

It’s actually built into the bill that a 15-member board would advise the Kansas Department of Health and Alcohol Beverage Control on medical marijuana for the first five years.

The program wouldn’t take effect until July 2023, allowing the involved entities time to build the program before it fully opened to patients in January 2024.

As it currently stands, the proposed medical program for Kansas is still too restrictive in Gordon’s opinion.

“Absolutely not,” she said when asked if she’d consider moving back to Kansas if the bill passed. “The bill that they have going through the chambers right now is so limited that it would not help her.”

Although it’s not perfect yet, advocates believe it will be with time.

“I can only just keep saying over and over again that I’ve seen cannabis do amazing things, for so many people,” Gordon said.

The Kansas legislature will resume its session April 25, 2022.

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Emily Woodring is a food content producer for Kansas City PBS.

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