An effort to bring Kansas into the ranks of the medical marijuana states took a big step forward last Friday as one of the state's most well-known political figures appeared at a news conference at the state capitol to announce his support of such a move. Former Attorney General Robert Stephan, a Republican who held the position from 1979 to 1995, told the news conference the state has an obligation to act to allow its citizens to use medications that would alleviate suffering.
Robert Stephan, KSCCC press conference, August 2007
"Let me make clear that I am in no way advocating drug legalization," said Stephan, who has been on record as a medical marijuana supporter since 1983. "But I also do not believe that the state should preempt the role of the physician when it comes to deciding what's best for ill Kansans. That's why I support changing state law to ensure that individuals can obtain and use a limited amount of marijuana if recommended by their doctor -- without fear of prosecution."
Stephan cited his own experience as a cancer patient, as well as the suffering of other patients, in calling for a Kansas medical marijuana law. Rejecting opposition to the medicinal use of marijuana as "voodoo medicine" and recounting the moans of misery he heard on the cancer ward, Stephan said, "It seemed incomprehensible to me that there should be such suffering and any drug, including marijuana, should be available to assist the patient." Stephan said access to medical marijuana should not be limited to cancer patients. It has proven useful for glaucoma, AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, and other diseases, he said.
Stephan declined a Drug War Chronicle request for an interview. He said he feared talking to a publication that advocates for drug legalization would damage his cause.
Last Friday's event marked the public coming out for the Kansas Compassionate Care Coalition, which has been busy laying the groundwork for a campaign it hopes will lead to legislation next year. It certainly garnered attention in the Jayhawk State. A Google search this week produced dozens of local media mentions of the news conference.
And that's just fine with KSCCC head Laura Green. "Our goal is to get a bill introduced in the Kansas legislature to protect seriously ill Kansans from arrest and prosecution for using marijuana as a medicine," said Green, "and this will kick-start the conversation."
It is a conversation that could use a boost in the Heartland. Twelve states with some 50 million inhabitants currently have medical marijuana laws, but none of them are in the Midwest. Efforts in legislatures in states such as Illinois and Minnesota have not reached fruition, while voters in South Dakota last year narrowly defeated a medical marijuana initiative -- the first state to reject medical marijuana at the ballot box.
The KSCCC is not carrying a pre-drafted bill to present to the legislature, said Green. "We're still five months away from the legislative session, so we don't have a bill yet," she said. "We're working with individual legislators and trying to built support and a consensus. There are many different medical marijuana models out there, and we're looking for one that our legislators can get comfortable with," Green said.
Some Kansas politicians were quick off the mark to reject medical marijuana after last Friday's press conference, but Green is not concerned. "We don't have a lot of political support right now, but that's to be expected," she argued. "Some politicians say they haven't had a chance to hear from their constituents, while even some of the ones who say publicly they're against it tell us something different in private."
It's not just legislators, said Green, who added she and the KSCCC will do everything they can to make sure elected officials do hear from constituents favoring a medical marijuana bill. The coalition is about a year old and some 400 members strong right now. "We're going around the state recruiting members -- patients, physicians, nurses, members of the religious community -- to try to build our numbers," Green said.
The Kansas State Nursing Association is a key target. The influential group will vote on a medical marijuana resolution in October, Green said, noting that an endorsement from the nurses will be a powerful tool.
The group is also attempting to get the Kansas clergy on its side. "We are getting a lot of religious support," said Green, who, as head of the Drug Policy Forum of Kansas spent long hours mapping out the state's hundreds of congregations as part of laying the groundwork for drug reform efforts. "We did a mailer to members of the clergy last Friday, and we've already had 30 responses. The response from the clergy has really been great," Green said.
If the legislative record in other medical marijuana states is any indication, KSCCC and its supporters have a long and twisting road in front of them. Passage of a medical marijuana law seems to be almost universally a three-year affair, or more. But in Kansas, patient proponents have been laying the groundwork for a year or more, and now they have emerged with a key state political figure standing with them. If they manage to enter the legislative session in January with some momentum, they just might short-circuit the normal, glacial legislative process.