To legalize or not? Here's where candidates for Kansas governor stand on pot

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More than half of the major candidates for Kansas governor support legalizing medical marijuana – a change that appears more likely after Oklahoma voters approved medicinal use on Tuesday.

Medical marijuana in Kansas is no longer the distant goal for supporters of marijuana legalization and reform that it once was. But what happens may ultimately depend on who is elected governor.

Marijuana has been a prominent in the Democratic race. That, as well as Oklahoma’s decision, are raising the odds that Kansas lawmakers will take a serious look at the issue next year.

“Kansas can no longer afford to be left out of the sweeping tide of states that have legalized marijuana for the health and financial benefits of its citizens. Canada has legalized it and now our Oklahoma neighbors have made medicinal marijuana legal,” said Carl Brewer, the former Wichita mayor who is seeking the Democratic nomination.

Oklahoma voters approved medical marijuana 56 percent to 46 percent, despite opposition from law enforcement and business leaders. Advocates say that if Kansas allowed voter referendums, the state would have already legalized medical marijuana, and 2017 polling by Fort Hays State University found a majority of residents support medical marijuana.

But a supportive governor would make a difference, they say.

“At least it would give us the opportunity to have a debate. That’s what we’ve been asking for for years. Let’s have a serious debate and real honest hearing on this issue,” said Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat who has offered legislation to legalize medical marijuana.

Bills to legalize medical marijuana have struggled in the Legislature, however. Neither the House nor the Senate has passed one.

A high-ranking Republican lawmaker said more study is needed before the Legislature acts.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said he isn’t sure Colorado’s legalization of marijuana and Oklahoma’s vote to approve medical use will make a huge difference for what Kansas lawmakers do. He said whatever they do, lawmakers need to make sure it’s right for Kansas.

That first means studying the evidence regarding marijuana, he said, as well as the experience of other states. He said he would support having state auditors examine the marijuana issue and report back to lawmakers.

Finney said calls for additional study are an excuse for inaction.

“If they’re really serious about it, we can at least have a conversation and a debate about it,” Finney said.

Hineman said having a governor supportive of medical marijuana could expand the discussion.

“If a governor is willing to start that conversation, it could change things,” Hineman said.

Democrats, Orman support

The three major Democratic candidates — Brewer, Josh Svaty and Laura Kelly — all support medical marijuana. So do Republican Jim Barnett and independent Greg Orman. That doesn’t mean their positions are all the same, however.

In addition to medical marijuana, Brewer supports legalization as recreational marijuana as well. He said he hears on the campaign trail that farmers want to diversify their crops with marijuana and that it will provide relief for people with some health conditions.

Democrat Josh Svaty said his focus would be on decriminalization, which he described as a “step beyond” medicinal marijuana.

As opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana use outright, decriminalization means reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use and possession. Under decriminalization, marijuana use may remain illegal but is treated as a relatively minor infraction.

Svaty said the line between legalization and decriminalization can become fuzzy.

“If a bill legalizing it arrives at my desk, I would support it,” Svaty said.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, predicted Kansas is a long way from legalizing recreational use, in part because of the makeup of the Legislature.

Kansas needs to evaluate its sentencing guidelines, Kelly said, adding that the state’s jails are full of nonviolent first time offenders who probably need treatment.

Medicinal use is much closer to becoming reality, Kelly said.

“I think we can have that discussion. Whether or not we can get it through the Legislature remains to be seen,” Kelly said.

Orman said that doctors who can prescribe Schedule II narcotics under the federal government’s drug schedules should also be able to prescribe medical marijuana. Schedule II drugs are considered less dangerous than Schedule I drugs.

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, ecstasy and others. Schedule II includes meth and cocaine, but also legal drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and OxyContin.

“In many instances, medical marijuana is the only way for some patients to address pain, nausea and seizures. We should give doctors and patients the freedom to choose that treatment course,” Orman said.

He also said Kansas shouldn’t waste criminal justice resources arresting, trying and incarcerating people “just because they bought a dime bag of weed.” He said recreational marijuana use should be treated like a speeding infraction, with law enforcement issuing a ticket and the offender paying a small fine.

Libertarian Jeff Caldwell supports full legalization of medical and recreational marijuana. He says legal marijuana would produce additional revenue.

"It's time to legalize cannabis and hemp to fund schools and roads," Caldwell's campaign site says.

Republicans mostly oppose

For the most part, the Republican candidates for governor are taking a harder line on marijuana.

Gov. Jeff Colyer and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer both indicated they don’t support medical or recreational marijuana.

“When it comes to recreational use, as a physician, I am inclined to follow the recommendations of the American Medical Association and they stand firmly opposed to the legalization of marijuana,” Colyer said.

Selzer said Colorado “has experienced many negative side effects from legalizing recreational marijuana, including higher rates of marijuana in the bloodstreams of highway fatalities.”

An August 2017 analysis by The Denver Post found that the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana had risen sharply each year since 2013. But the newspaper also reported that state transportation and public safety officials said the rising number of pot-related fatalities couldn’t be definitively linked to legalized marijuana.

Colyer, a surgeon, said clinical trials have proven there is no sufficient evidence proving that smoking marijuana is an effective treatment for specific medical conditions. A 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that summarized research on marijuana found that evidence regarding short- and long-term use remained elusive.

Selzer and Colyer both said they support the medical use of compounds derived from marijuana, such as CBD oil. Colyer signed legislation this year authorizing CBD products that don’t contain THC, the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said he doesn't support recreational marijuana and is highly skeptical of medical marijuana.

"I don't see any way that has been proven to be successful of limiting it to those who truly medically need it," Kobach said.

Barnett, who is a physician, said the state is ready to move forward with medical marijuana, though he noted the science is still evolving on its effectiveness. As for recreational marijuana, he said the “data is still out for review” regarding the overall long-term impact.

Voters are curious

The candidates indicated they hear about medical marijuana frequently on the trail.

“This is one of the most common questions that I have received on the campaign trail. This question comes from the spectrum of all age groups,” Barnett said.

Orman said he is also hearing from more Kansans who want the state to revisit the whole range of marijuana policies. In particular, they want doctors to be free to prescribe medical marijuana, he said.

Svaty, who was in the Kansas House from 2003 until 2009, said he remembers only receiving one email asking for marijuana legalization while he was a lawmaker. Now, people ask him about it everywhere he goes.

“Kansans are thinking about this a lot right now," Svaty said. "Far more than when I was in the statehouse nine years ago."

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorm

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