Kansas won’t have legal medical pot or expand Medicaid for at least another year


TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas will remain among the handful of states that haven’t legalized the medical use of marijuana or expanded their Medicaid programs for at least another year.

Republican state senators on Friday blocked efforts to force debates on both issues before the GOP-controlled Legislature’s scheduled adjournment for the year Tuesday. Supporters of each measure fell short of the 24 of 40 votes required to pull a bill on each subject out of committee.

Backers of both proposals argue that they have popular support yet have been thwarted going on a decade in each case. Kansas doesn’t allow voters to put proposed laws on the ballot statewide, a path that has led to approval for each measure in other states.

All but 12 states have legalized medical marijuana, and all but 10 have expanded Medicaid in line with the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act and its promise to cover almost all of the cost. Besides Kansas, only Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming have done neither, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re behind the times,” state Sen. John Doll, a western Kansas Republican who voted for both measures, said after Friday’s votes.

Republican leaders had expected both efforts to fail, given the GOP’s 29-11 Senate majority, and viewed them largely as political grandstanding.

The medical marijuana vote was 12-25, with three senators absent. Law enforcement officials oppose the idea, seeing medical marijuana as likely to be close to legalizing recreational use.

During committee testimony earlier this year, opponents also pointed to Oklahoma officials’ frustration with the legalization of medical marijuana by ballot initiative there in 2018. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, a Republican, has said the explosive growth of the marijuana industry under a lax law has attracted an influx of criminals and foreign nationals for illegal black-market operations.

“We had no idea we were going to have 10,000 growers, way more than they have in California and all these other states, and anybody with a hangnail could get a medical card,” Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said.

But Oklahoma also received nearly $52 million in revenue from its excise tax on marijuana and an additional $67 million in state and local sales taxes in 2023.

Cheryl Kumberg, a registered western Kansas nurse and president of the Kansas Cannabis Coalition, said Oklahoma’s problems stem from its lax law. She said Kansas residents who can get cannabis from other states are using it, risking legal issues to address their medical problems.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I can go 45 minutes one way, a couple hours in the other direction, and you can just you can just use it however you want.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly even linked medical marijuana to Medicaid expansion in 2021, unsuccessfully pitching marijuana taxes to cover the state’s relatively small share of the cost of expanding Medicaid health coverage to another 150,000 people.

The Medicaid expansion vote Friday was 18-17 despite months of aggressive public campaigning by Kelly and other expansion advocates. In early January, she said she was taking a “more political approach” and suggested plans to hit anti-expansion Republicans hard during the fall campaign.

She backed off that idea this month, telling reporters after one pro-expansion event, “Whether it’s an election year or not — that’s irrelevant.”

But last year, Kelly formed the Middle of the Road political action committee, and it raised nearly $1 million by the end December for elections this year for all legislative seats.

Also last year, two former Kelly campaign aides helped form a nonprofit advocacy group, the Kansas Coalition for Common Sense, to back the governor’s goals. That group put out a post-vote statement suggesting that a no vote was a vote against lowering health care costs and helping rural hospitals.

But Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said before the vote that he wasn’t expecting Medicaid expansion to become a major campaign issue. He dismissed surveys and polling that expansion supporters released showing its popularity as “just based on how the question is asked.”

“If you ask them, ‘Do you want able-bodied people to get free health care?” people will vote no,” Masterson said, repeating a common GOP argument.


Murphy reported from Oklahoma City.

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