Into The Weeds Of The Cannabis Debate In Particularly Pot-Unfriendly Kansas

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Photo Credit: Harvest Public Media

Kansas sits in a shrinking pool of states with the strictest marijuana and hemp laws, surrounded by a wave of decriminalization and legalization that’s swept most of the U.S.

So it’s no surprise that the topic of cannabis keeps cropping up in the Kansas Statehouse, where some lawmakers and lobbyists want the Free State to jump on the bandwagon.

That means terms like cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol make their way into bills and debates. Here’s a primer on pot and policy in Kansas and elsewhere.

The marijuana boom

As far as the feds are concerned, marijuana is illegal.

Sure, the Obama administration nudged prosecutors not to go after people who sell it for medical use in states where that’s allowed. And it didn’t step in when states began allowing recreational use, either.

But administrations change. And Trump’s is showing more interest in a showdown between state and federal rules.

There’s potential, at least, for quite a clash. Tallies by the National Conference of State Legislatures show at least 29 states now allow medical marijuana, nine permit recreational use and some others allow derivative products (more on that below).

Amid that patchwork, Kansas is one of just four states not allowing any of this, for any purposes.

Notably, next-door Colorado was one of two states to lead the charge on recreational use in 2012. It’s reasonable to think some skiers leaving the state on eastbound Interstate 70 might have a little skunk in the trunk. Yet Kansas law enforcement agencies told the attorney general in 2016 that they aren’t seizing more of the drug — but the stuff they find is stronger than before.

Industrial hemp

Hemp and marijuana come from the same plant species, but hemp has so little THC in it that drug users can’t get high from it. THC — tetrahydrocannabinol — is the cannabis chemical that causes that effect.

Since hemp has major industrial potential — it is used in a wide range of foods, fabrics and other products, but right now the U.S. mostly imports it from countries like Canada and China — there’s been a national push to make growing it legal.

That’s true in Kansas, too, where some farmers and other proponents see potential in an increasingly parched state for a cash crop that doesn’t need much water.

Since 2014, federal law has let state agencies and universities run industrial hemp pilot programs. Nearly 30 states are taking advantage of that.

Kansas hasn’t joined their ranks. Growing hemp remains illegal, with law enforcement agencies leading the opposition to legalization. They say it would make combating marijuana cultivation even harder, and that distinguishing between low and high-THC plants is a potentially costly hassle.

Last year a bill allowing hemp cultivation passed one chamber of the Kansas Legislature. Another push is underway this year.

Cannabidiol, a.k.a. CBD

Like THC, cannabidiol is a compound found in cannabis. So both substances fall under another term that pops up in policy conversations — cannabinoids. But CBD can be isolated and sold with so little THC in it that consumers won’t get high from it.

Some researchers and people who use CBD oil say it helps with seizures and other ailments, and sometimes without side effects related to prescription medications. Others question that. At least 17 states have loosened restrictions on CBD to varying degrees. In Missouri, some people with epilepsy can get it.

But even when CBD is effectively THC-free, CBD oil appears to be illegal in Kansas.

Some local governments had been confused about how to handle shops that sell CBD oil, so late last month the Kansas attorney general weighed in. His office says CBD falls under Kansas’ definition of marijuana.

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking lawmakers to settle the matter. The group says the attorney general’s opinion isn’t binding on law enforcement agencies. So it fears Kansans won’t reliably know their rights. You might buy CBD oil in a county that lets shops sell it, then get arrested when you take it home to another that disagrees.

Kansas passed a law last year that would open the door here somewhat if the federal government approves CBD in medications, but so far the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done so. The Congressional Research Service says drugs containing CBD are trying to get federal approval.

Cannabis and health

The best overview of what we know — and don’t know — about benefits and dangers of cannabis and its various ingredients comes from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which led an effort to weigh the quality and conclusions of 10,000 scientific papers.

Turn to pages 13 through 22 here for a handy chart of nearly 100 conclusions. There’s strong evidence, for example, that cannabis helps adults with chronic pain, but there’s little to say whether it helps treat cancers.

Crime and punishment

Though only nine states have made marijuana for recreational use legal, at least 22 have decriminalized it. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that doesn’t necessarily mean there are no penalties in those states, but the price of getting caught is a lot lower.

It remains criminal in Kansas, though the state has taken some steps to lower penalties for cannabis-related crimes amid prison crowding, and is considering more.

In Kansas, getting caught with marijuana for personal use is a misdemeanor the first two times, meaning you could go to prison for up to a year, though probation is a common alternative. If you’re caught a third time, you could go to state prison for 10 to 12 months — longer if you have other criminal background — but, again, could very well get probation instead. Dealing marijuana comes with tougher penalties.

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