Prohibition Runs Deep In Kansas

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From alcohol to pain-relieving pot, Prohibition runs deep in Kansas

Amy Reid is serious about medical marijuana.

She’s a Wichita registered nurse and president of the Kansas Cannabis Coalition. She describes herself as a cannabis navigator for her patients, and she is all business when it comes to advocating for medical weed. I couldn’t help but chuckle when she told me the name of a sister organization, the Kansas Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. She asked me what was so funny.

Um, the name, I said, guilty as a schoolboy. The hard K, the alliteration, all ending with “chamber of commerce.” It was like no chamber I’d ever heard of, but the only one I might want to join.

It’s not funny, Reid told me. There are people in Kansas who need medical marijuana to relieve their pain, especially from cancer, and it’s far better than using opioids. It was an outrage, she said, that somebody living on the Missouri side of the river in Kansas City had safe and legal access to medical marijuana, while just a couple of blocks away in Kansas the same patients risk a felony conviction.

“We are simply asking our lawmakers to allow Kansas residents access to the therapeutic effects of this amazing plant,” Reid told me. “Three of our four neighboring states allow this, and it’s time Kansas stepped out of the ‘Reefer Madness’ mentality and allowed patients to have a choice.”

I am sympathetic to Reid’s quest, but the history of Prohibition in Kansas runs deep.

Take the case of Stella Van Oster.

Stella lived in Garden City and made frequent trips to visit friends across the state line in La Junta, Colorado. Her name appears often in Kansas newspapers of the 1920s, giving invocations as the national chaplain for the Sons and Daughters of Justice, a fraternal benefits society that sold life insurance policies. As a woman in the 1920s — the decade when Bernice bobbed her hair, the jazz ran hot and the party seemed never-ending — Stella naturally wanted a car, and she bought one on a payment plan at a Garden City dealership. The garage kept the car on retention and, with Stella’s permission, sometimes used it for business.

And that’s where the trouble began.

A garage employee, Clyde Brown, borrowed the car to transport a little moonshine. This being the Prohibition, that was illegal. Finney County Sheriff Oil Brown (any relation to Clyde? I don’t know, but what a great name), was a famous booze hunter. He once had been run over by bootleggers and survived. The car that hit him had been confiscated, sold at auction, and given to Oil. So when Oil and his boys arrested Clyde — after allegedly seeing him toss a bottle of hootch out the window — they naturally seized the car. When Clyde was acquitted by a Finney County jury, Stella naturally wanted her car back. She hadn’t given her permission for the car to be used in bootlegging! And Clyde had been found not guilty.

No dice, a district judge said. Even though Clyde wasn’t found guilty, the car was. It had been used to transport intoxicating spirits and, following federal precedent that went all the way back to the seizure of a pirate ship, the Palmyra, by the U.S. Navy in 1822, the judge declared the seizure legal.

Stella was outraged.

She hired an attorney, a former U.S. senator from Kansas, who vowed to fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and did. But in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled in Van Oster v. Kansas that the seizure of Stella’s car was constitutional. In another ruling announced at the same time, One Ford Coupe v. United States, the court issued a similar ruling, saying the plaintiff (the car!) was guilty and could be seized because it had once transported illegal intoxicating liquors without paying the tax imposed on said liquor.

Yes, inanimate objects such as cars and boats and airplanes and houses and especially piles of cash can be found guilty in a civil court of law in the United States, where the burden of proof is less than in a criminal case, and taken from their owners, even if the owners have no knowledge of the object’s bad behavior.

Now, let’s fast forward about 90 years.

But we’re still in Garden City.

In 2015, Shona Banda was a 38-year-old massage therapist and marijuana advocate. She had been using marijuana, purchased in Colorado, which had legalized pot the previous year, to treat the pain caused by Crohn’s disease, a serious inflammatory bowel condition. The trouble began when her 11-year-old son spoke in defense of medical marijuana at his Garden City school during a drug education seminar — “My mom smokes a lot!” — which sparked an investigation by social workers and local law enforcement. The kid also said marijuana had saved his mother’s life. A Finney County detective interviewed the son, gathering detailed information about marijuana use in the home, and the accessibility of cannabis oil and paraphernalia to the boy. The information was sworn to in an affidavit, which was used to obtain a warrant to search Shona’s home. A little over a pound of marijuana and assorted pipes and vaporizers were seized. Shona was arrested, charged with five felony counts, and her son was temporarily taken from her custody.

She faced 30 years in prison.

Shona’s case became ground zero for an international debate on medical marijuana.

More than 84,000 people from around the globe signed a petition in support of Shona, and a GoFundMe drive raised $40,000 for her defense. Even conservative talk show host Glenn Beck came to her defense, questioning the wisdom of prosecuting pot crimes and criticizing the “smugness” of the cops who searched her home. This may have been the one and only time that Tea Party fomenting Beck and I ever agreed on anything.

After a two-year legal battle, Shona accepted a plea deal in which she received 12 months of “mail in” probation and was allowed to move to Spokane. She is, presumably, happier and healthier in Washington, which was the second U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana use. The world’s first legal retail marijuana sales began in Colorado in January 2014.

Currently, of the four states that border Kansas, three have legalized some form of marijuana. Colorado is pot nirvana, and both Oklahoma and Missouri have medical pot. The fourth, Nebraska, had certified a petition last year to put medical marijuana to a statewide vote, but the question was removed from the ballot by the state’s supreme court.

Although marijuana advocates are hopeful that at least some type of medical marijuana will be allowed in Kansas soon, I’m not so optimistic. Kansas has a long history of blocking both progress and good times. We seem to be obsessed with the idea that somebody, somewhere, is either having a good time or feeling better, and we have to nip that in the bud.

Prohibition in Kansas lasted longer than in any other state, and far longer than national prohibition. We outlawed booze way back to 1881 and stuck with it until 1948. It wasn’t that Kansans didn’t drink during that time, but you had to be creative, such as making your own booze, going to a speakeasy, or getting a prescription from your local pharmacy. Even after 1948, we prohibited liquor by the drink, and in the 1970s Attorney General Vern Miller did nutty things such as raid Amtrak trains and prohibit airlines from serving liquor while flying over the state. We didn’t get liquor by the drink until 1987. Oh, and we still haven’t ratified the 21st Amendment, which ended national Prohibition.

When it comes to pot, I reckon we’ll be the last state to end that prohibition, too.

We have done plenty of nutty things when it comes to pot, such as requiring drug dealers to buy marijuana tax stamps. The thinking, as in Prohibition, is that you can charge legal taxes on illegal activities and thereby deter the criminality and add cash to the state’s coffers. In practice, however, about the only people who bought the sticky things were stamp collectors. In 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed itself and ruled that in most cases those convicted of marijuana dealing couldn’t also be expected to have the proper stamps.

Remember the case with Stella’s car?

Based in part on the precedent set by the Van Oster case, Kansas cops (and those across the nation) have collected millions of dollars over the years in assets seized during drug busts big and small, with local agencies getting a cut of the proceeds. Until recently, we didn’t have an accounting in the state of how much was actually seized, but just about everybody knew that most of that cash and other assets came from car stops. But in 2018, the Kansas Legislature passed a law that requires all agencies to report in detail, and for the KBI to make public, a list of all forfeitures. If agencies don’t comply, they aren’t allowed to continue seizing property.

In 2020, according to the most recent report, Kansas cops seized $5 million in cash and more $1 million in property, overwhelmingly connected to drug-related incidents. About 60% of seizures occurred during traffic stops and, overall, 28% of owners weren’t arrested. Leading the state in seizures was Neosho County, with 39 seizures. That’s for a county with fewer than 16,000 residents.

So, it’s no wonder that Kansas cops routinely lobby against any change in the state’s marijuana laws. Nationally, there has been a move away from forfeiture laws, but there is still a considerable financial incentive for law enforcement to search and seize.

But Reid, the nurse cannabis navigator, is optimistic.

She said her organization is building bipartisan support and that she hears regularly from sympathetic Kansas legislators. Two medical marijuana bills, SB 158 and SB 315, she said, were introduced late in the last session, and will remain in Senate committees until lawmakers return in 2022.

Meanwhile, it’s still a crime to bring marijuana into the state from Missouri and Oklahoma. And if you’re thinking about bringing edibles back from Colorado, which contain the THC-rich cannabis oil that helped Banda with her Crohn’s, be warned that you’re facing a felony. I love Colorado, and have been known to stop at a dispensary or two, although I leave my Rocky Mountain high behind.

But if somebody I loved had cancer and only marijuana would ease the pain?

I’d take that risk in a heartbeat.

Godspeed, cannabis navigator.