As legalization of medical and to a lesser degree recreational cannabis finds increasing traction across the nation, the Kansas Legislature remains steadfast in its seemingly undying position: cannabis is illegal on the state and federal levels — the end.
Medical cannabis has been legalized in 29 states and the District of Columbia over the last 21 years, and some form of legislation has passed allowing for study of medical cannabis in every state except Kansas and Iowa. So when a Garden City woman using cannabis to treat her Crohn’s disease was faced with up to 30 years in prison and custody loss of her 11-year-old son, the 38-year-old “pot mom” drew national headlines.
After more than two years simultaneously fighting a double-pronged battle against her disease and the court system, Finney County native Shona Banda, who had no prior criminal history, was given a plea deal resulting in 12 months of mail-in probation. Now she resides in Spokane, Wash., where she is able to use her preferred medicine to treat her condition freely, but for more than two years her case put Kansas at the national forefront of the debate on medical cannabis law.
With her case tentatively at a close pending the successful completion of her probation, the national implications of Banda’s story and her battle against the Kansas court system have earned a spot as The Telegram’s No. 3 local news story of 2017.
Banda’s use of cannabis was hardly ever a secret. In 2010, she released a book, “Live Free or Die,” detailing her use of the plant and its active compounds to treat her ailment. She also maintained an extensive social media presence, uploading YouTube videos through which she lent a face to her voice as she continued her advocacy.
But in March of 2015, Child Protective Services workers removed Banda’s 11-year-old son from her Garden City home. The reason? Banda’s use of cannabis was putting her child in danger.
The details of an arrest affidavit published in July of 2015 showed that the drug investigation and child-in-need-of-care case stemmed from comments Banda’s young son made during a drug education program at Bernadine Sitts Intermediate Center, where he attended school.
Police said at the time that the boy had described his mother and other adults at home as avid drug users, spurring the investigation and criminal prosecution that caused a media frenzy. The drug in question was cannabis and its derivative forms, and Banda was using vaporizers to manufacture the oil she says is the only treatment that works to suppress the life-altering symptoms of her debilitating disease — something cannabis experts rallied to testify to at trial.
To make matters worse for her, Banda was charged with five felony counts including possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of school property, manufacturing a controlled substance, two counts of possession and use of drug paraphernalia, and one count of child endangerment.
When Banda turned herself in to the Finney County Sheriff’s Office in June 2015, her attorney at the time, Sarah Swain, said any prison sentence without access to her medicine would be tantamount to a death sentence. Banda agreed.
“Her health is not good,” Swain said. “And I think it will only continue to deteriorate as this case drags on and as we take the time necessary to really fight it and fully litigate all of these issues.”
Over the two-year course of her case’s development in the courts, Banda was in and out of the hospital, ruled competent to stand trial, and often broke down in tears, even on the day of her ostensibly light sentencing — which critics have viewed as a slap on the wrist for a woman that ultimately chose to break the law.
In April, Banda pleaded not guilty to the charges against her under the representation of counsel Kenneth B. Miller of Wichita. But in August, she agreed to plead no contest to a count of possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to manufacture, a level-five drug felony. In exchange for her plea, the State of Kansas dismissed the remaining charges and the court approved the agreement.
“I’m so upset. I really am,” Banda said in August. “I’m upset that I had to leave my hometown. I’m upset that I had to leave my family. I’m upset that I had to leave my countrymen. But I am wise enough to know and understand that yes, I would have won my trial, but I could not have gone through four to six more years of appellate and Supreme Court cases.”
After her October sentencing, Banda said she was “not happy” about being “punished for trying to save my life.”
“But I have to acknowledge that sometimes the monster is much larger than I am, and I have to know when to fold and that’s what I’m doing,” she said. “I have to focus on my family and my health, and that’s why I’m going to focus on, my family first and foremost.”
Banda once again has custody of her young son, and she said he is happy with her in Washington. After Banda’s arrest, her son was placed in his father’s custody, but DCF later placed him in protective custody before returning him to his father again.
Banda waived her right to a preliminary hearing in November 2015, when she learned that her son would be called to testify against her. She said her son is becoming more aware of his role in the police investigation and prosecution of his mother as he gets older, and that it weighs on him.
As a coda to her battle with the Kansas court system, Banda expressed remorse over what she sees as a failure to expose to Kansans the truth about medical cannabis.
Today, her personal Facebook account depicts a woman enjoying life with friends and family, frolicking in the snow and spending at least a little more time away from the hospital bed.
As a final farewell, Banda had this to say to Kansas residents who might carry the torch in the fight for cannabis in Kansas: “Never stop fighting, because the truth is really out there, and someone will force the courts to open their eyes and acknowledge the truth, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t.”