It was set to be a major breakthrough for medical marijuana advocates.
Twelve years after the first bill on the matter was introduced, after numerous false starts over the years, legislators were ready to schedule a committee hearing on establishing a medical cannabis program.
While committee meetings on the matter had happened in the past, advocates felt there was a real path forward on getting the bill passed — that 2020 wouldn’t be a year in which the matter died on the floor of the House or Senate.
Then COVID-19 happened.
Lawmakers went home early in March, and when they returned in June, it was for a special session focused solely on the coronavirus.
That left medical marijuana out in the cold.
“COVID happened and things were up in the air about the possibility of coming back and we just were not able to resume hearings in the capitol at that point,” said Rep. Cindy Holscher, D-Olathe, who worked on medical marijuana legislation. “It felt like all systems were moving forward and then COVID changed it.”
But the past year has strengthened the case for medical marijuana, advocates argue.
Only eight states, including Kansas, lack a program that allows residents with certain conditions, ranging from epilepsy to post-traumatic stress disorder, to use marijuana to treat their symptoms.
Before Kansas lawmakers return to session in January, voters in two of those states, Nebraska and South Dakota, will decide whether they want medical marijuana to be legalized.
Kansans lack the option of putting medical marijuana on the ballot. But if a program does get off the ground in Nebraska, each of its neighbors will have medical marijuana.
“We are completely surrounded with states who have moved forward on medicinal cannabis,” Holscher said. “Some states have even gone further to make it easier for people from Kansas to come and get licensed and take part in the businesses in other states because they know that we’re behind in this area.”
And while COVID-19 may have derailed efforts last session, it could turn up the heat on lawmakers when they return to Topeka, potentially in search of new revenue streams.
The pandemic has hit the state budget hard. While the state reported higher-than-expected tax revenues in August, Kansas is still staring down the barrel of what could be a $1.4 billion budget shortfall.
While a medical cannabis program, especially one that is more limited, wouldn’t replace those funds, it might help cushion the blow.
“We’re going to have to make some difficult choices next year,” said Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene. “And most of those will be because of a lack of revenue. This is a revenue generating product. It’s not a big revenue source, but it will be a revenue source.”
Lawmakers weren’t thinking in terms of economics when J. Andrew Ericson and Erin Montroy founded the Kansas Cannabis Business Association earlier this year, the pair said.
Instead, the focus was on whether cannabis was an effective medical treatment.
“We saw a lightbulb go off in the committee’s head when we started talking about the money here,” said Ericson, the group’s president.
A preliminary KSCBA analysis says the state could stand to gain upwards of $500 million over five years from medical marijuana, although the exact figure would fluctuate depending on the form of the program.
In Oklahoma the state has reported $40 million in licensing revenue already this year, which comes on top of the roughly $5 million a month in taxes that the state has raked in.
Money would come not just from dispensaries selling marijuana products but also the other businesses that crop up to support the industry.
That could range from insurance companies specializing in weed to transportation firms to consulting groups that help interested entrepreneurs get licensed.
“They actually bring in more money” than the dispensaries themselves, Montroy said.
How much revenue the state stands to gain is dependent in part on what a program would look like.
Oklahoma has a fairly liberal setup that was approved by voters in 2018. No qualifying medical condition is required for a prospective patient to get a card allowing them to purchase medical marijuana.
The state has one of the higher per capita dispensary rates in the country, meaning there are no shortage of suppliers willing the meet that demand.
State lawmakers have signaled that this framework is a bridge too far for them. A 2019 special committee that probed the issue advised the state to be much more strict in terms of what is allowable.
Their recommendations were to model Ohio and only allow edible and topical cannabis products. Barker later introduced a bill to that effect during the 2020 session.
The leafy green stuff? Still completely banned. Residents also wouldn’t be able to grow plants at home.
One benefit to the legislation, Barker argued, was a “safe harbor provision” that would allow residents of other states, such as Missouri or Oklahoma, to travel through Kansas without the fear of being arrested for marijuana possession.
“I do not want people to get arrested for following the laws of their state,” Barker said.
But Ericson said the KSCBA opposed mirroring Ohio, arguing the overall proposal would be much too restrictive.
Instead, they would rather the state follow the lead of Missouri.
While corruption and bureaucratic snafus have delayed the launch of medical marijuana in Kansas’ eastern neighbor, the underlying principles were more sound and provided a better business climate, Ericson said.
But there are still lawmakers skeptical of medical marijuana, and a more restrained program would be necessary to try to sway one of the biggest opponents to medical marijuana: law enforcement.
Officers have expressed concerns about determining who is legally possessing marijuana and who isn’t, as well as a potential black market that might crop up if medical cannabis were legal.
“Proponents of this, they want to get high,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said at a hearing last year. “That’s my opinion of it, and that’’s the opinion of law enforcement.”
But while law enforcement groups wouldn’t be thrilled about any such program, Holscher said conversations had been more productive and focused on what the reality of medical marijuana might mean for policing in the state.
“They know this is coming, that it is going to happen,” she said. “So what can we do working together to ensure law enforcement is prepared?”
Ericson was also cautiously optimistic that even conservative lawmakers who might be inclined to heed the chorus of caution from law enforcement leaders like Easter might be won over by the revenue potential.
“It’s very exciting, especially for fiscal Republicans who understand the necessity for that revenue,” he said. “I personally think that it’s changed their minds a lot, and has pushed some of those very far right conservatives into the realm of possibility of voting for this.”
As chair of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, Barker’s committee would have jurisdiction on the matter.
And the Dickinson County lawmaker said he was planning on reintroducing his legislation on the first day of session in January, though he pegged its odds of passage at “60-40.”
“Sometimes you have to start with small steps,” he said. “And then everybody will see that the world is not going to come to an end. And then you can work off the first step and go to the second step. They’ve been working on this for five years and we couldn’t gain any traction. At least I’m getting traction now.”
Barker comes at the issue from a unique angle. Before serving as a lawmaker, he served first as a federal drug agent in Europe, then later as a judge in Kansas’ 8th Judicial District.
Over those years “times have changed,” he said, arguing that giving patients more options for treatment makes sense.
“If he wants to smoke some weed or use some THC … I’m not the one that is going to say no,” Barker said. “If it helps, it helps.”