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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Path to legalized hemp oil for seizures goes through Kansas Senate

Broader legalization of medical marijuana unlikely in 2016 session

By Andy Marso | January 11, 2016

Path to legalized hemp oil for seizures goes through Kansas Senate
Photo by Ryan Reed/Special to KHI News Service Otis Reed, whose parents moved from Baldwin City to Colorado in search of a cannabis cure for the dozens of seizures he suffers every day, is slowly being weaned off ineffective pharmaceutical treatments and on to an oil derived from marijuana plants. Otis is shown here with his mother, Kathy Reed.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles by the KHI News Service previewing health-related issues that the Kansas Legislature will face in its 2016 session.

In a house at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in a suburb of Colorado Springs, a “marijuana refugee” who may spur a change in Kansas law is now 4 years old and improving cognitively.

Otis Reed, whose parents moved from Baldwin City to Colorado in search of a cannabis cure for the dozens of seizures he suffers every day, is slowly being weaned off ineffective pharmaceutical treatments and on to an oil derived from marijuana plants.

“When you’re dealing with something like uncontrollable seizures, there are ups and downs. But overall things are definitely up for us here and up for Otis here in Colorado,” Otis’ father, Ryan Reed, said in a phone interview. “He’s got the best quality of life he’s ever had.”

Back in Kansas, the chances of non-intoxicating hemp oil becoming legal for the treatment of seizures are greater than they’ve ever been.

Last year the House voted 81-36 in favor of House Bill 2049, which combined the hemp oil provision with legalization of hemp for industrial use and a lessening of penalties for first and second convictions of possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Photo by KHI News Service Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat, introduced a bill last year to allow low-THC cannabis oil to be used specifically to treat seizure disorders. The House approved the bill, but it faces an uncertain future this legislative session.

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The bill was introduced by Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat who represents the district where the Reeds lived before they moved to Colorado. Wilson calls it “Otis’ Law.”

Barring a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback, the bill needs only a passing vote in the Senate to become law. But this is the second year in a two-year legislative cycle, so if it doesn’t pass this session, proponents would have to start over with a new House and Senate.

Senate President Susan Wagle and other Republican legislative leaders have said they’re shooting for a short session focused on closing a state budget deficit without raising taxes after last year’s record-long session.

Wilson said that could stymie the bill, or it could help it. Only “a handful” of legislators actually have sway over the budget, he said, because of the way the Legislature has written its appropriations rules. That leaves a lot of people with time on their hands.

“We might find ourselves in a situation where, because most people in the Legislature can’t work on the big issue, they want to be able to kind of coalesce around something,” Wilson said. “We might find that in the Senate, in particular, they might have the time and energy to focus on the medical hemp issue. But, then again, I could also be wrong.”

The Senate path

A spokeswoman for Wagle said via email that the Wichita Republican has no comment on HB 2049.

Wagle placed the bill in the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee after it passed the House in May. She and the chairman of that committee, Sen. Greg Smith, took heat from proponents for not scheduling a hearing on it as the tax and budget impasse stretched the session into June.

Smith said he heard the complaints, but there was little he could do given how late in the session it was.

“I just told them, ‘Look, I know it’s important to you, so this will be the first bill the corrections committee takes up next session,’” Smith said last week.

He said that’s still the plan, and hearings on the bill are likely to commence the second week of session, after legislators return from the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday break.

Smith said the committee will take testimony on all parts of the bill, but he expects the bulk of it to focus on hemp oil, which also is called cannabidoil or CBD.

“There’s much more interest in the CBD part of it than anything,” Smith said.

A committee hearing does not guarantee the committee will vote on or “work” the bill, and passage in committee does not guarantee the Senate will take it up or pass it.

“Any solution would have to be very narrowly tailored and very specifically focused on those kids that are really suffering. If I were a parent of a child suffering like that, I would want the state to be open to explore all options.”

- Senate Vice President Jeff King, a Republican from Independence

Kansas remains far more skeptical of cannabis than its neighbor to the west, which has legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use as well as medical use.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced last week that his office is beginning a study of the detrimental effects of pot from Colorado crossing the Kansas border — an announcement that drew a rebuke from a medical marijuana advocacy group called Bleeding Kansas.

The type of broad-based medical marijuana legalization that group wants has never gained legislative traction in Kansas, though Democrats have introduced it several times.  

But political winds are shifting nationwide, with 23 states and Washington, D.C., now having legalized medical marijuana in some form.

In Kansas, even some Republican legislators with “tough-on-crime” reputations are expressing more openness.

Rep. John Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee who proposed the sentencing changes in HB 2049 as a way to free much-needed prison beds for violent offenders, said last summer that the state needs to “seriously consider” changing its medical marijuana laws.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, a Republican from Independence who sits on Smith’s committee, said he doesn’t think the Legislature will support broad legalization of medical marijuana any time soon.

But he said Wilson’s bill is different in that it legalizes only a form of cannabis that cannot produce a high and only for a specific medical condition.

“I’m open to a discussion on that,” King said. “Any solution would have to be very narrowly tailored and very specifically focused on those kids that are really suffering. If I were a parent of a child suffering like that, I would want the state to be open to explore all options.”

The evidence

Whether the hemp oil bill passes or stalls this session, expect groups like Bleeding Kansas to continue to push for broad medical marijuana legalization.

The legal saga of Shona Banda, a Garden City mother, has stirred passions in the pro-cannabis community. Banda was outspoken online about using marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease, but lost custody of her son after he talked about it at school. She’s facing five marijuana-related criminal charges with an arraignment scheduled for Monday.

Photo by James Dobson/Garden City Telegram The legal saga of Shona Banda, a Garden City mother, has stirred passions in the pro-cannabis community. Banda was outspoken online about using marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease, but lost custody of her son after he talked about it at school. She’s facing five marijuana-related criminal charges with an arraignment scheduled for Monday.

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Ryan Reed said that based on what he’s seen in Colorado, he’s also in favor of legalizing marijuana for treating a range of conditions like Crohn’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ve seen it do some amazing things out here,” Reed said. “I would like to see it broaden out into other issues people are having.”

But skeptics say the pace of medical marijuana legalization is outstripping the evidence of its effectiveness.

A limited study of hemp oil in 2013 spurred widespread hope when 80 percent of the children who participated showed some reduction in their seizures. But the sample was small and subsequent studies have shown a success rate of closer to 30 percent.

Studies on Crohn’s and other illnesses have been similarly limited in size, in large part because the federal Drug Enforcement Agency still categorizes marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

“The federal restrictions on that type of research are pretty substantial,” King said. “Oftentimes at levels of government you’re blamed for what the levels of government above you won’t let you do, and I think this is one of those instances where the federal government has really restricted our ability to prospectively get data on these issues.”

Researchers from the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service, were unable to find enough reliable data to analyze marijuana’s potential medical benefits.

But by studying states that legalized medical marijuana broadly, they found that marijuana-related car crashes and hospitalizations due to accidental ingestion tended to increase after legalization while crime and illegal consumption did not.

But groups like Bleeding Kansas argue that abuse of legal prescription drugs is far more dangerous to society, and marijuana could be a safer alternative.

The debate continues, nationally and in Kansas, but Reed said he sees the tide turning in favor of legal cannabis treatments.

“It’s hard to argue against it,” Reed said, “once people get past that stigma of, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s marijuana.’”