Will Kansans get access to medical marijuana? Advocates hail ‘historic’ progress, but many hurdles remain.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

Kiley Klug tried everything to help ease the relentless seizures of her 13-year-old son, Owen.

The younger Klug has Dravet Syndrome, a rare condition that prompts scores of seizures every day — so many, in fact, that his mother had to pause her testimony to the House Federal and State Affairs Committee last month to help Owen while he was in the midst of a seizure.

Traditional pharmaceutical interventions, as well as over a half dozen surgeries, did not help.

What did help was cannabis, Klug said.

The products the family purchased were legal in Kansas under a 2019 law, which protects children with a "debilitating medical condition” who use cannabidiol products, such as oils or topical products, which are very low in THC.

The Kansas House Federal and State Affairs Committee approved legislation to create a medical cannabis program in Kansas.

"A light went on," Klug said in an interview. "He started sitting up again, he started babbling again, he started communicating with us again, he started rolling over again. It was insane. It was a miracle."

But a spike of hormones as Owen enters puberty has exacerbated his condition. Dravet Syndrome is also able to adapt, Kiley Klug said, meaning the CBD oil that has worked in the past might not continue to be effective going forward.

That means different types of cannabis products would be needed to help keep the disease guessing. Medical cannabis isn't legal in Kansas, despite years of tussling in the state Legislature.

Kiley Klug talks with a lobbyist after a committee hearing on medical cannabis. Her son Owen, right, uses cannabis products as treatment for Dravet Syndrome.

And moving is not an option for the Klugs, as their Odin home is close to family who can help them care for Owen. But if his seizures continue to worsen and legalization doesn't move forward, switching states would be something they would consider.

"We would have to think about it," Kiley Klug said.

Residents like Klug are one step closer to getting their wish for legalized medical cannabis.

Advocates cheered a historic moment Monday, as the House Federal and State Affairs Committee approved legislation to create a medical cannabis program in Kansas — one without several key restrictions that some worried would limit its effectiveness.

Medical cannabis bill still faces legislative hurdles

But the bill will have to overcome a sharply divided Republican caucus in order to move forward, with some concerned the new proposal is so lax that it amounts to a backdoor way of legalizing recreational marijuana.

Still, proponents noted this was the first time any committee in Kansas has blessed a medical cannabis program.

More:Could medical marijuana help ease the state’s budget woes? Advocates say yes

"I've definitely seen more discussion and more energy on this subject than ever before in Topeka," Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, said. "There is a desire to get something done. The question is how."

Medical marijuana advocates have begun looking enviously at Oklahoma and Missouri, both neighboring states that have established programs in recent years via ballot initiative.

Colorado has gone even further by becoming the first state in the country to legalize recreational pot.

Nationally, 36 states have some form of legalized recreational or medical cannabis. Others have more restrictive programs that only allow CBD oil and other products with low levels of THC, the compound in cannabis that is mind-altering.

But supporters say the state only has to look to the south in order to find a good model for marijuana policy.

Oklahoma has raked in over $41 million in tax revenue to date, owing in large part to a regulatory framework that critics believe is far too liberal.

The Sooner State, for instance, has not moved to limit the number of dispensaries, where cannabis products are sold. And, because no qualifying medical conditions are required, Oklahoma has one of the highest participation rates in the country.

Kansas taking more limited scope on medical marijuana

Part of why some Republicans have come around to Kansas' proposal is because of its more limited scope.

Legislators in Kansas have favored something more like what was initially rolled out in Ohio. The bill would allow for cannabis edibles and oils to be sold — but not smokable products — and would set up a licensing process for growers, distributors and dispensaries.

Legislators in Kansas have favored a bill similar to what initially was rolled out in Ohio, allowing for cannabis edibles and oils to be sold but not smokable products

It would allow for scannable patient identification cards to be issued by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in order for users to prove they can purchase marijuana, provided they have an eligible condition.

A retooled version of the bill, however, does away with several restrictions which could have limited access further. Thanks to an amendment from Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, there is now no cap on how much THC can be in products sold in Kansas.

Limits on other elements, including the conditions which would make a patient eligible for a medical marijuana card, have also been curbed, and fees have been cut in half.

Normally one of the most conservative members on the Kansas House, Garber said the scale of constituent interest he has gotten on the issue has prompted his support for the idea. And fewer restrictions could increase access for those same residents, particularly ones who live close to the poverty line.

More:Gov. Laura Kelly wants to fund Medicaid expansion in Kansas with marijuana. Here's what you need to know.

"I have gotten story after story after story from people who would benefit from it," Garber said. "Although I am considered a conservative, Christian Republican, I think the issue is how can we help our citizens. And I believe this will give them another pathway to making their lives better."

There had been some discussion, led by Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, in moving the other direction by strictly limiting the number of dispensaries at 60 — meaning at least a third of the state's counties would be without a place to buy cannabis products.

Carpenter pledged to redouble his commitment to advancing that provision on the house floor after he was unable to do so during the committee process.

"It is my opinion that, at that point, it wouldn't be medical (marijuana)," he said of changes to the bill.

Physicians wanting to prescribe medial marijuana would have to be specially licensed by the Board of Healing Arts.

Legislators eye doctor-patient relationship

Legislators have also weighed requiring patients have a relationship with a doctor for 12 months before their doctor can prescribe medical marijuana — something which would have been one of the strictest mandates in the country.

Eplee, who is a practicing physician, said this would be a break from how doctors usually interact with their patients.

"It should be up to a physician to determine if, and when, a patient should qualify for a marijuana recommendation," Eplee said.

Legislators struck that provision Monday and instead moved to only require a doctor to conduct an exam and review a person's medical files before recommending marijuana. Residents would also need to remain with a physician for six months after obtaining a cannabis prescription.

More:Proposal to tie Medicaid expansion to medical marijuana just makes sense for Kansas

Some restrictions remain, however. Physicians would still have to be specially licensed to prescribe medical cannabis by the Board of Healing Arts. They also would have to undertake continuing education courses and would need to pay a $175 fee.

Critics of this provision argue this could lead to access barriers, particularly in rural areas.

Chris Issinghoff, policy director for the Kansas Cannabis Business Association, said doctors at major health systems in other states, the equivalent of Stormont Vail or The University of Kansas Health System, haven't been as inclined to get the necessary paperwork.

Similarly, some believe physicians in rural areas might not seek out the necessary training and pay the requisite fee if they believe their patients wouldn't be interested in a medical marijuana program.

In Ohio, roughly 600 physicians were eligible as of April 2020 to prescribe medical marijuana in a state with 11.7 million residents. Most of those were in urban areas, although the Buckeye State does now allow cannabis to be prescribed via telemedicine.

Issinghoff said policymakers should ignore those rural residents at their own peril.

"The people are out there," Issinghoff said. "You're not going to have the transaction numbers out there but people are still there."

A bill under consideration in the Kansas House would allow some forms of medical marijuana.

Conservative opposition to bill remains

Not everyone is on board with medical marijuana. Conservative members made their opposition known when the medical marijuana bill moved the bill out of committee before all amendments could be heard, arguing the idea was not yet ready for primetime.

"If I look, there are 13 of the cannabis lobbyists here to ramrod through what they want," Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, said. "I think this is a rushed process. I don't think it was done in good faith, none of the negotiations. I stand in direct opposition to this particular bill."

The House isn't expected to vote on the bill this week, meaning legislators would have an increasingly narrow window to move forward. The bill will also face an uncertain reception in the Kansas Senate.

Eplee, however, was optimistic that Kansans like Owen Klug, the teenager with Dravet Syndrome, might finally have the program they are craving.

"I think it still has enough controls and guardrails to provide a safe bill going forward," he said. "You've got to admit, this is the furthest this issue has ever come in the history of our Legislature."