For years, Garden City resident Shona Banda has been self-medicating her Crohn’s disease with cannabis oil and making no secret of it, touting her homemade vaporizer on YouTube and in a self-published book.
Now, Banda could face up to 17 years in prison for doing so, in a case that has medical marijuana advocates enraged and legislators from both parties saying it is past time to re-examine the state’s drug laws.
“We are terrified,” said Lisa Sublett, founder of the medical marijuana advocacy group Bleeding Kansas. “We are outraged. We are heartbroken. Many are planning to move.”
Marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug at the federal level has hampered peer-reviewed research on its medical benefits. But in some preliminary studies, cannabis extracts have shown promise for treating various ailments, including Crohn’s, a painful bowel disease. About half the states now allow medical marijuana, but in Kansas, possession of any amount of marijuana is illegal and a felony on second conviction.
Law enforcement and child protection authorities began investigating Banda after her 11-year-old son spoke up about his mother’s therapeutic marijuana use during an anti-drug presentation at school in March. Her son has since been removed from her custody.
According to the Finney County Attorney’s Office, Banda was charged last week with five counts, including manufacturing a controlled substance, possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a school, possession of drug paraphernalia and child endangerment. Three of the five charges are felonies.
In an interview with alternative news website Truth in Media, Banda disputed the proximity of her home to any school and said her son was never in any danger. But she did not dispute that she possessed and used marijuana, calling it “the most nontoxic substance on the planet.”
In a statement released with the charges, Finney County Attorney Susan Richmeier said she was merely enforcing state law as written.
“At this time it is illegal in the State of Kansas to use or possess Schedule I drugs as listed in KSA 65-4105,” Richmeier’s office said. “It is also illegal to manufacture such drugs for personal use or otherwise. The Finney County Attorney’s Office will continue to strive to serve the public by enforcing the laws as written within the state.”
Rep. John Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee, said Richmeier’s statement was absolutely correct and Banda’s case provides a “textbook example of why we need to seriously consider changing the laws in the state of Kansas with regard to marijuana and especially medical marijuana.”
Rubin, known as one of the House’s more conservative members, has fought for sentencing reform as a fiscal and humanitarian issue.
Kansas is embroiled in a protracted battle over the cash-strapped state budget, and its prisons are at or near capacity. With that backdrop, Rubin said the prospect of locking up a mother with no history of violence for more than a decade because she used cannabis to treat her chronic illness shows the folly of the state’s drug laws.
Rubin spent most of the session pushing a bill to loosen penalties for first- and second-time marijuana possession convictions in order to decrease the prison population and make room for violent offenders. On Tuesday, he said it’s also time to look at legalization of marijuana for medical use.
“Properly drafted law that strictly regulates the prescription and dispensation of medical marijuana is an important thing for us to consider, and I think we need to do it sooner rather than later,” Rubin said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t do it this year, and I’m going to make it a priority next year.”
He will have an ally on the other side of the aisle in Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence.
Wilson successfully pushed through the first medical marijuana bill to ever come to the floor of the Kansas House. The limited measure that would have allowed low-THC cannabis oil only for the treatment of persistent seizure disorders was attached to Rubin’s sentencing bill, House Bill 2049. Both bills stalled in the Senate.
Wilson said he was disappointed the measures weren’t enacted.
“The solutions we brought forward this session … not only addressed the financial impacts associated with outdated marijuana laws, but also the human impacts,” Wilson said. “Make no mistake, this issue will live on in the 2016 legislative session and, perhaps, into the campaign season.”
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, said he supported a House bill that dealt with hemp oil, but it was limited in scope to the treatment of seizure disorders. But that’s as far as his support went, saying there’s a big difference between that bill and medical marijuana in that hemp oil has a non-intoxicating level of THC, the active ingredient that creates the marijuana high.
“But there are apparently some suggestions that with particular seizure disorders that sub-intoxicating levels seem to have some value to some patients. And for that limited purpose, that limited scope, I voted for it,” Jennings said.
Beyond that limited scope, Jennings said federal law still prohibits the use of marijuana and he is not inclined to dismiss federal law. It should be addressed at the federal level, and then the states can decide how they want to handle the issue, he said.
“But I don’t think it is prudent for us to choose to ignore federal laws, whether it’s with respect to marijuana, firearms or anything else,” Jennings said.
Rep. John Doll, R-Garden City, voted for HB 2049 and the medical use of hemp oil.
“The chemicals we are giving patients now are so — I mean they’re just incredible what they do that ravage the body. If this gives somebody with terminal disease comfort, there’s not one cell in my body that opposes it,” he said.
However, Doll said, marijuana is illegal right now. While he hasn’t put much thought into legalization, he said marijuana isn’t hard to get right now. He speculated legalization might help better control the drug’s distribution, but feels it’s something for constituents to let their feelings be known about.
“Personally, I wouldn’t have a big issue with it. If the majority of my constituents … were against it, I would vote against it,” Doll said.
Wilson said the need to change state marijuana laws has become “abundantly clear,” and he will work with House and Senate Republican leaders and Gov. Sam Brownback on it. Sublett said those in her group who choose to stay in Kansas will ensure that medical marijuana legalization is an issue in the 2016 campaigns. She pointed to a recent survey conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University in which 68 percent of Kansans who responded said they favor allowing medical marijuana.
“The will of the people is constantly thwarted and overlooked in Topeka,” Sublett said. “The chaos and dysfunction of this last session is a lesson to every Kansas voter that we must be vigilant and moved to action in the next elections.”
Telegram staff writer Angie Haflich contributed to this story.