Kansas is one of three states where medical marijuana is illegal. Though lawmakers had the opportunity to consider several bills in 2023, time is running out for them to take action. Photo: Stock image/Canva.

Recreational marijuana is legal to the west in Colorado and to the east in Missouri. Medical marijuana is legal to the south in Oklahoma. But Kansas remains one of three states where possession for any purpose remains illegal — despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of Americans support legal use for at least medical purposes. The other two states with complete bans are Nebraska to the north and Idaho.

People in Colorado were among the first in the country to have access to both medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana, which was legalized in 2012. Missourians have been able to access medical marijuana since 2018, when voters legalized it. Missouri voters legalized recreational weed in November 2022, and the first legal sales were made in February. In Oklahoma, medicinal cannabis was first permitted in 2018. Oklahoma voters will decide on March 7 whether to legalize recreational marijuana. 

But for people who live in Kansas, legal medical marijuana is inaccessible. That hasn’t stopped people from needing it, or from getting it — despite the consequences. Days before Christmas, police in Hays were called to the hospital room of a dying cancer patient for a drug bust. Police cited the patient, Greg Bretz, for drug possession, because he was using a vape pen and edible paste containing THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. 

Bretz told The Wichita Eagle that his doctor said to “do whatever he wants if it makes him feel better” to ease the pain in his final weeks of life. Bretz died on Jan. 11. Police dropped the charge soon after making the bust, but too late to avoid making international headlines.The incident reignited the debate on medical marijuana in Kansas. 

Lawmakers have debated legalizing medical marijuana in Kansas for at least the past two years. 

Last year, legislative leadership thought the issue important enough to warrant appointing a joint committee (no pun intended) to research medical marijuana policy options; it stopped short of recommending specific legislation. Gov. Laura Kelly mentioned medical marijuana — and Bretz’s hospital bed citation — during her annual State of the State address in January.

A handful of bills addressing medical marijuana were introduced this year, but time is running out for lawmakers to act on them. With each passing week, it appears less likely that 2023 will be the year that medical marijuana becomes legal in Kansas. 

What is medical marijuana? Is it the same as CBD?

No, they are not the same — though there are similarities. 

Marijuana is one type of Cannabis sativa plant; hemp is another. The defining difference between the two is how psychoactive they are: marijuana contains enough tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to create the “high” associated with recreational weed. Hemp contains only trace amounts. 

Both marijuana and hemp are used to create products that purport to ease symptoms of some medical conditions due to chemical compounds called cannabinoids. One such cannabinoid is THC, and THC concentration usually determines how a cannabis product is regulated. 

Products with low or no THC, called CBD, are made from industrial hemp, which has been legal to grow in the United States since 2018 so long as the amount of THC produced remains below trace levels.  Kansas does not allow CBD products with more than a trace amount of THC to be sold or produced in the state. 

Kansas requires both hemp growers and processors to obtain licenses from the state. There are currently 13 licensed hemp growers and nine licensed hemp processors in Kansas. 

Lawmakers introduced two bills this year that, if passed, would legalize medical marijuana: Senate Bill 135 and Senate Bill 171. Both would create regulations allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients, but SB 171 would give military veterans early access ahead of the general public.

Why do people want legal medical marijuana in Kansas?

Among all this debate over whether and how Kansas should regulate the medicinal use of cannabis, the question underlying it all is: How, exactly, is marijuana medicine? 

As public support for medical use of cannabis has grown, medical research is slowly catching up to at least partially validate that support. While it’s not a cure-all, researchers have found that cannabis has some medicinal benefits. 

Medical marijuana is effective in relieving chronic pain, chemotherapy-related nausea and some symptoms of multiple sclerosis, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. 

The report also found other uses of medical marijuana show promise — though more research is needed — such as helping patients with HIV/AIDS maintain body weight by increasing their appetite. Some psychiatric and neurological conditions may also be helped by medical marijuana, like post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety and Tourette syndrome. 

Medical marijuana is not without side effects, though, like increased heart rate, dizziness, hallucinations and more, according to the Mayo Clinic

What about recreational marijuana?

Generally, marijuana is legislated according to its intended use, meaning that any law that would legalize recreational use would usually be considered separately from legislation allowing medical use. So, if a medical marijuana law is enacted, it doesn’t legalize recreational marijuana. 

House Bill 2367, sponsored by freshman Democrat Rep. Silas Miller of Wichita, would legalize recreational marijuana if passed. 

What happens to people with marijuana charges on their criminal record?

Legalizing marijuana in some capacity does not automatically expunge the criminal records of someone convicted of past crimes. That’s why many states that have legalized marijuana have also passed laws that would allow expungements for people convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes. 

In neighboring Missouri, the courts will automatically expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from criminal records, a provision that was part of the statewide ballot referendum in November 2022.

Marijuana-related convictions are considered by many to be a race equity issue. According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2018, Black people in Kansas were arrested for marijuana possession at nearly five times the rate as white people. Kansas had the 12th-highest racial disparity in arrests, the report said. 

House Bill 2363, introduced earlier this month, would expunge the records of anyone convicted in Kansas of a marijuana-related offense and void any remaining sentences. 

How does Kansas compare to other states?

Kansas is one of three states where medical marijuana is illegal, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Medical cannabis products that contain THC are allowed in 16 states. 

Low-THC products made from hemp, like CBD, were removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act in 2018, but states may still regulate them. Ten states which do not allow medical marijuana regulate the sale and production of CBD. Kansas is not one of them. 

Marijuana is legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes in 21 states, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a cannabis legalization advocacy group. 

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Miranda Moore covers the Kansas Statehouse and state government for The Wichita Beacon.