Updated: Feb 11
There will be no weed jokes in this column. This column is serious.
This column argues that the people who’ve been elected to represent Kansans in the Legislature have a rare opportunity to do something legitimately popular, something bipartisan, something that would unite Kansans while relieving a persistent source of tension between factions who need fewer reasons to distrust each other.
One of the Legislature’s first acts, when it convenes in January, should be to legalize recreational marijuana for people over 21.
Though my leftward leanings are well known, this is not a radical socialist proposal.
On Tuesday, in a Republican stronghold two states north of us, 53% of South Dakota voters legalized recreational marijuana.
In Montana, where Thursday’s headline in the Helena Independent Record might as well have been about Kansas — “’ Trounced’: Dems lose big, GOP rakes in wins” — 57% of voters also approved recreational marijuana for adults.
Kansans don’t have statewide referendums (unless it’s for a constitutional amendment, and we’ll see one of those saying women have no constitutional right to an abortion, likely before daylight savings time begins again), so we have to rely on legislators.
And the people of South Dakota and Montana have just given Republicans in the Kansas Legislature cover to do what most Kansans want them to do anyway.
A couple of weeks ago, the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University released its annual Kansas Speaks statewide public opinion survey. Among its findings: 66.9% of respondents supported legalizing recreational marijuana for people 21 years of age so that the state could tax it.
This was the second time the Docking Institute asked that question, and support has grown a bit: In 2019, it was just over 63%.
A couple of things to consider about this poll.
“It wasn’t a straight-up question about the general population’s attitude toward legalizing recreational marijuana,” notes Brett Zollinger, the director of the Docking Institute.
“It was couched as a potential mechanism to reduce reliance on traditional taxes,” he says, explaining that the survey had just led respondents through questions about their attitudes toward either increasing or decreasing income tax, sales tax and property tax.
This should give conservative legislators even more reason to support it, because they all want lower taxes.
Some observers might dismiss the "Kansas Speaks" survey because of its overall sample size: 417 people over the age of 18 (389 on the actual marijuana and tax question).
“As long as we are following appropriate methodology to help ensure that a representative group of people is drawn out of the full population, best practice methodology tends to yield highly representative samples,” Zollinger says.
They made sure the proportion of respondents represented the metro and non-metro Kansas population, he explains and weighted it appropriately for gender and age.
(For spot-checking purposes, check the survey’s Trump vs. Biden numbers: Kansas Speaks had 52% voting for Trump to 37.6% voting for Biden — a 14.4 point difference; the Secretary of State’s unofficial results have 57% for Trump and 41% for Biden – a 16 point difference. So, pretty close.)
What if we just all admitted that legalizing recreational marijuana, taxing it and devoting some of those revenues to addiction treatment programs would help the state’s financial situation and make life a little more fair for everyone?
“From a social justice and economic standpoint it makes sense,” says Lisa Ash Sublett, of Bleeding Kansas Advocates, which has been working for the legalization of medicinal cannabis. “The savings to the justice department alone would save a lot, with prison overcrowding and us sending prisoners to Arizona.”
Sublett is careful to distinguish her coalition’s work on behalf of medicinal cannabis from anything close to recreational, or “adult” use.
“There are so many who object, and their only objection is this is a slippery slope that will lead to adult use,” says Sublett.
“We have to move conservatively because there is a very strong opposition in the state of Kansas, especially from the law enforcement side and the medical side,” adds Rebecca Cumley, who started a state chapter for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) last year.
Medical marijuana is not a new concept in the Kansas Legislature. Sen. David Haley of Kansas City and Rep. Gail Finney of Wichita has worked on the issue for years. Last year, before COVID-19 cut short the session, House and Senate committees both considered various bills that never made it to the floor for votes.
Most lawmakers, understandably, don’t want to cross the law enforcement community, which has many longstanding reasons for opposing legalization.
Legalization comes with its own problems — Colorado’s experience proves that. But how many already-strained resources might be deployed elsewhere? How many tensions with communities of color, who are disproportionately punished for marijuana use, might ease just a little?
If you think I’m making this argument because I’m a typical liberal who just wants to smoke weed all day, don’t take it from me — take it from South Dakotans. Besides, I’ve been sober for decades.
I’m making this argument because I see a way that 67% of Kansans who probably disagree on other matters could come together and solve real problems.