In a surprise move, Kansas lawmakers voted 7-4 against a bill that would have made low-level cannabis possession a misdemeanor irrespective of the number of times an individual had been convicted of such an offense.
Kansas law currently considers a third conviction for low-level marijuana possession a felony offense punishable by up to 14 months in prison. In practice, offenders typically receive probation.
The bill had the support of Chairman Russ Jennings of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, but not enough of his fellow members in the Republican-controlled committee could be persuaded to vote for the measure.
“A felony conviction is a heavy burden for an offender, around an offense that, in many states now, is not a crime at all. It’s pretty harsh,” said Jennings.
The bill initially called for individuals currently in prison for low-level cannabis offenses to be released, but this provision was removed by the committee. Supporters of the bill made this concession on the understanding that doing so would help get it passed, but it wasn’t to be.
“I thought this was mild enough that it might get through the committee,” said Rep. Boog Highberger (D), one of the committee members. “I can’t explain it.”
The Kansas chapter of NORML, a marijuana reform organization, said “Kansas legislators continue to persecute unnecessarily.”
Former Topeka police chief, Ed Klump, now lobbies for law enforcement associations and said the current law is “reasonable” since third-time marijuana possession offenders rarely go to prison unless there is a violent charge included.
The vote is a blow to hopes for medical marijuana legislation in Kansas. Gov. Laura Kelly said recently that she would “probably” sign a marijuana legalization bill if it landed on her desk, but that her priority is passing medical cannabis legislation.
“I have always said that I want it well-regulated so that it’s controlled so that it’s not the first step to legalization of marijuana,” Gov. Kelly said. “I don’t want that. I want it to be seen as a pharmaceutical and controlled as we do that.” While no medical cannabis bill has yet been submitted, the Federal and State Affairs Committee are in the process of drafting one for review this legislative session. However, some members of the corrections committee who voted against the measure said medical cannabis is a separate issue. Still, with a majority of Kansans in favor marijuana legalization while the state has some of the country’s harshest cannabis laws, it’s clear that lawmakers are out of step with voters’ wishes.