Sen. David Haley says he’s made some tweaks to a bill legalizing medical marijuana for this year’s legislative session, but it’s largely the same as the bill that failed to get a hearing the last two years.
Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, said he’s relying on an increase in public pressure to convince the Legislature’s Republican leadership to give the issue its first committee debate since 2012.
“There are constituents that are committed to natural alternatives in health care that span the political diaspora,” Haley said. “They’re all across the board. It’s not a conservative or progressive issue. It’s a health alternatives issue.”
Haley noted that the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature, an advocacy group for the state’s elderly residents, has endorsed legalizing medical marijuana.
Eric Voth, a Topeka doctor who testified against legalization at the 2012 hearing, said that science, not public pressure, should drive medical decisions.
“(Medical marijuana) is medicine by popular vote, because it bypasses the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” Voth said of medical marijuana legalization.
Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat, introduced the bill that had a hearing in 2012 but then died in committee. Haley said Finney may introduce a House version of his bill this year to increase the chances of a hearing.
The bill Haley pre-filed in the Senate heading into next week’s session states that medical research has confirmed the benefits of cannabis in treating symptoms like pain and nausea that accompany many illnesses.
Haley noted that Sanjay Gupta, a prominent physician who is a medical correspondent for CNN, changed his viewpoint to one supportive of medical marijuana after researching the issue the last several years.
“I think education is the key,” Haley said. “The greater the level of education, the sooner we’ll adopt something here in Kansas.”
In addition to being vice president of primary care at Stormont-Vail, Voth is chairman of the Institute on Global Drug Policy, an organization that opposes marijuana legalization.
Voth said the FDA has reviewed and approved medications that include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana plants.
“There’s no doubt everybody would say in the scientific world there is probably some benefit in some cannaboids,” Voth said. “But that’s not new… and nothing about that applies to marijuana.”
Voth said those who use THC by smoking or ingesting marijuana get an unregulated dose that can do more harm than good. He said studies have shown that THC’s therapeutic benefit occurs only within a small dosage window.
He said drugs like Marinol are a safer option for patients who can benefit from THC. The FDA also is reviewing a regulated alternative to “Charlotte’s Web,” a low-THC strain of marijuana used to produce cannabinoid oil that some are using to treat seizures in children, he said.
Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence, said he’s exploring legislation to provide a path to legal use of cannabinoid oil in Kansas. He’s inspired by a Baldwin City family who lived in his district until last year, when they moved to Colorado to obtain the oil for their son, Otis, who suffered more than 100 seizures per day.
“They seem to be doing really well,” Wilson said. “Otis is sleeping more through the night.”
Wilson said he’s waiting on a health impact assessment about medical marijuana from the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service, to inform his legislation.
Haley’s bill would allow Kansans with a “debilitating medical condition” certified by medical practitioners to possess up to 12 cannabis plants and six ounces of “usable cannabis.”
Qualifying medical conditions spelled out in the law include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn’s disease and Alzheimer’s. But the law also makes allowances for anyone who suffers from a condition that causes symptoms like severe pain, nausea, seizures and “wasting syndrome.” It also empowers the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to add other medical conditions to the list approved for medical marijuana treatment.
Possession of the marijuana plant remains illegal under federal law, which has limited research on its medical benefits.
Despite the federal ban, nearly half the states have legalized it for medical use and a handful, including Colorado, have legalized it for recreational use.
A significant difference between using cannabis plants and FDA-approved drugs that contain THC is that the drugs don’t provide the user with a psychoactive “high,” while most of the plants do.
Voth said there are some medical marijuana advocates who are genuinely seeking symptom relief for themselves or loved ones, but some are also looking to get high without the legal risks.
“When you really peel away the onion, there’s a core of advocates who are just trying to legalize pot,” Voth said.