Medical marijuana may be an easier sell than Medicaid expansion in Kansas

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
Varieties of CBD flower, a nonpsychoactive ingredient in marijuana, are sold at Sacred Leaf in Topeka. The store sells a large variety of full-spectrum CBD products legally but is restricted by the state from selling anything that contains over 5% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Gov. Laura Kelly announced a proposal this month to legalize medical marijuana as a way to pay for Medicaid expansion in Kansas. 

“It's nice to see that she's finally admitting that it is going to cost money to expand Medicaid,” Sen. Richard Hilderbrand (R-Galena), who chairs the Senate health committee, reportedly said following the announcement. 

Medicaid expansion aside, though, some say Kelly — who has a B- grade from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) — could have gone further on marijuana legalization in a year when proposals are on the table in several other Midwestern states, including Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, that would legalize recreational pot. 

“She could probably put her neck out and support recreational weed and probably get a bigger payoff out of it and be fine,” University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller told the Associated Press

As of late 2019, more than 60 percent of Kansans supported legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana for individuals 21 and older, while just over a quarter said they opposed doing so, according to a Fort Hays State University poll

Nancy Ingle of Pittsburg, who ran as a Democrat last year against Hilderbrand in his southeast Kansas district, said she would have supported both legalizing medical marijuana and expanding the state's Medicaid program, known as KanCare.

Hilderbrand, meanwhile, said this week that he still opposes Medicaid expansion. During last year’s campaign, he said a compromise Medicaid expansion bill only failed to pass because of a refusal to support the Value Them Both Amendment by Democrats, who “thought that the right to an abortion was more important than expanding Medicaid.” 

The anti-abortion Value Them Both Amendment, which House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer (D-Wichita) has described as “too extreme for Kansas,” has since passed the legislative hurdles to appear on the ballot in the state’s August 2022 primary election. 

Hilderbrand remains opposed to abortion and to Medicaid expansion. If his view on medical marijuana is any indication of broader Kansas GOP thinking, though, that part of Kelly’s latest proposal may have a better chance of success. 

Hilderbrand “would be supportive of looking at legalizing medicinal only marijuana,” as long as it is prescribed by a doctor, “there is a clear, distinct, and measurable medical benefit,” and “there are suitable provisions to ensure for a safe and secure distribution,” he said in an email this week. 

Since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized cultivation of industrial hemp – which is the same plant as marijuana but grown differently so that it doesn’t get you high – Kansas farmers have been experimenting with growing the crop, first as part of a research pilot program. Starting this year commercial licensing has been made available, and hemp growing and processing businesses are popping up across the state.  

Even as some Republicans in the Kansas Legislature may be warming up to the idea of joining a large majority of states that now have legal medical marijuana programs, though, they may be a little late in boarding the bandwagon. President Joe Biden has increasingly been signaling support for decriminalizing marijuana nationwide and allowing individual states to decide whether they will allow recreational use — a real possibility with Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress.