TOPEKA, Kan. — A Kansas Senate committee wasn’t ready Tuesday to endorse a narrow medical marijuana proposal, even though its members approved a measure for reducing criminal penalties for first- and second-time pot possession.
The Republican-dominated Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee showed its uneasiness by splitting apart the contents of a marijuana bill approved by the House last year. The House bill both reduced penalties for marijuana possession and legalized the use of therapeutic hemp oil in treating seizures.
The committee approved one bill that deals only with criminal penalties on a voice vote, sending it to the full Senate for debate. It drafted a second bill, containing the medical marijuana provisions, and forwarded it to the Senate without a recommendation on whether it should be passed. GOP members expect it to be sent next to a committee that deals with health issues.
The corrections committee’s action on the medical marijuana proposal is designed to spark more hearings. Republicans emphasized that they weren’t killing the measure but had questions about whether hemp oil treatments have been adequately tested and whether enacting the proposal could lead to a broader legalization of marijuana.
Conservative-led Kansas is facing pressure to liberalize its laws on pot partly because 23 other states now allow some form of medical marijuana, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Lawmakers also have heard emotional testimony from parents with children suffering severe seizures who say legal drug therapies aren’t working.
“We’re stuck in a place where there’s nothing left for our son,” Tiffanie Krentz, a Topeka business owner whose 11-year-old son began suffering severe seizures shortly after his birth, said after the committee’s meeting.
Legislators are interested in lessening penalties for marijuana possession partly because the state’s prisons are more than full. The Department of Corrections had nearly 9,800 inmates in its custody as of Monday — 77 more than the state capacity of its prisons.
The bill dealing with penalties would reduce the punishment for first-time misdemeanor possession to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine from a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. A second possession conviction would no longer be a felony, so an offender wouldn’t be sent to a state prison.
“These are non-violent crimes that I think, probably, we’re dealing with too harshly,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican.
The state is getting pressure from some communities as well. Wichita voters last year approved an ordinance reducing penalties within the city for possessing small amounts of marijuana, only to see Kansas Supreme Court invalidate it last week over a technical issue.
Several committee members said they want to have more hearings on medical marijuana because they’re not sure that treatments such as hemp oil have been tested enough. Also, the state association for local police chiefs has worried that even a narrow medical marijuana bill would lead to a broader legalization of pot.
“It looks like a new avenue to getting marijuana,” said Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Grinnell Republican whose northwest Kansas district borders Colorado, where recreational use is legal.
Krentz said she doesn’t want to abandon her business in Kansas or split up her family to take her oldest son, J.J., to Colorado for hemp oil treatments. She said she also doesn’t want to risk obtaining the treatments in Kansas illegally.
“I am a law-abiding citizen, and I’m concerned that someone potentially could be made an example out of,” she said.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at @apjdhanna
This article was published on The Cannabist