Cannabis Activism in Pot-Hostile States: Kansas and Oklahoma Are Fighting the Good Fight
Legalization advocates in 420-unfriendly states like Kansas and Oklahoma have many hurdles to overcome, but they want the outside world to know they haven’t given up the fight.
Published on January 29, 2018

2018 could be another historic year for the cannabis legalization movement in the United States.

Nine states have implemented recreational, adult-use legalization, and at least 29 states and the District of Columbia boast some form of a legal medical marijuana program — with several more states expected to vote on legalization later this year.

But there are some parts of the country where the prospect of legalization still seems quite distant, if not highly improbable, due to a combination of regional politics and local cultural values. Ironically, two states with particularly harsh cannabis laws also border cannabis-friendly Colorado: Kansas and Oklahoma.

These two states have been infamous for years for their restrictive attitudes towards cannabis. And while there might be changes on the horizon in Oklahoma, cannabis advocates in Kansas want the outside world to know they haven't given up the fight.

Photo courtesy of Bleeding Kansas Advocates

Kansas is probably the best-known of the diehard anti-marijuana states, and its cannabis laws remain some of most draconian in the nation. Penalties for cannabis possession have been relaxed in recent years, but are still strict – with threats of jail time and stiff fines, even for first-time possession.

The Sunflower State is only one of two states (Idaho being the other) whose laws do not acknowledge that cannabis has any medical benefits. Kansas has also made national headlines in several cases where children have been removed from the custody of parents who were accused of marijuana use.

Esau Freeman, vice-president and co-founder of Kansas for Change, a cannabis advocacy group with the slogan "Don't Break Kansas Law — Help Change It," says the majority of cannabis laws in his state are targeted against people of color and poor people, especially when the current fines for drug offenses can be economically crippling.

"Marijuana possession usually ends up being, for anybody between the ages of 18 and 25 years old, a sentence of mandatory drug treatment, which can cost around $3,000 per person," he told MERRY JANE.

At the same time, a majority of Kansans are looking for change in their legalization laws. A 2015 poll in the state found that 63% of those surveyed favored decriminalizing recreational marijuana, so that possession would only lead to a fine. Lisa Sublett, president of Bleeding Kansas Advocates, says there is also support for outright legalization.

"Our voice is not strangled," she told MERRY JANE. "The people here support it." And many Kansans, she said, are "infuriated" by what she describes as the "willful ignorance" of many lawmakers in the state when it comes to understanding the realities of cannabis.

"They just refuse to do their due diligence; they don't want to see the research, they don't want to talk about it," she added. "It's this paternalizing attitude of 'daddy knows best.' And because they're not for it — that they don't want to use it — they don't see why anybody else should get to."

Sublett points to the recent comments by Kansas State Rep. Steve Alford, who sparked outrage after he said that African-Americans were users of marijuana and other drugs "because of their character makeup – their genetics and that."

Kansas has also made itself overtly hostile to drivers from cannabis-legal states. Despite some federal legal rulings against such measures, media in Colorado have reported stories of drivers in vehicles with out-of-state license plates getting stopped by Kansas law enforcement, which were apparently looking to make cannabis possession arrests.

"I honestly tell people: do not drive through this state if you do not have to," Sublett said. "Just do not. It's worth it to go out of your way, go some other way, because you're just taking such a risk."

Photos courtesy of Bleeding Kansas Advocates

Oklahoma, on the other hand, has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country. And that statistic may be why the state passed two measures last year that reclassified low-level drug charges such as possession as misdemeanors, which usually result in no jail time.

Meanwhile, in early January, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin announced June 26 as the election date for State Question 788, a referendum on medical marijuana. If approved, the measure would allow MMJ license holders to possess up to three ounces of cannabis and would permit doctors to recommend medical marijuana to adult patients with a state-issued license.

William Jones, a longtime cannabis activist and campaign manager for Vote Yes on 788, says the perceptions of cannabis in Oklahoma have changed dramatically over the past four years. "People don't think it's something that needs to land people in jail," he told MERRY JANE. "People want it safer and taxed."

Jones and his organization spend a lot of time working at the grassroots level, setting up booths and social media sites where people can get more information and register to volunteer. He believes educating the public, as well as of some Oklahoma legislators, is a vital aspect of the mission for cannabis activists there.

"They might be a little out of touch with their voter base," Jones said in reference to his state's lawmakers. "As far as I can tell from four years of registering and signing people up for this question, it spans both political parties. I've talked to thousands of people and I'm hard-pressed to find many with legitimate arguments [against cannabis]."

A big impetus for many Oklahomans, he observed, is the medical and financial benefits that cannabis legalization can bring to their state.

"They see what's going on in Arkansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, and just wonder why we aren't doing this," he said.

Jones believes 788 will succeed in June. "I think it will pass by 54, 55 percent, maybe more," he said. "We're reaching out to communities all across the state. We're seeing huge support on the ground, even in the legislature, and we're trying to do a good get-out-the-vote campaign."

Photos courtesy of Bleeding Kansas Advocates

Advocacy groups in Kansas are pushing for policy reform at the legislative level, too. Bleeding Kansas Advocates helped create and introduce the Kansas Safe Access Act (KSSA) into the state legislature last year. Those measures would establish the groundwork for a legal medical marijuana program in the state, while setting up the infrastructure for MMJ growing and processing operations — a factor that Lisa Sublett says could have great economic benefits for financially-strapped Kansas.

But unlike other states, Kansas does not have voter initiatives or referendums as part of its political process. The inability of Kansas citizens to propose state laws, constitutional amendments, or referendum votes is a huge frustration for cannabis activists there.

"We cannot gather signatures and force it onto the ballot," she said. "That means the 165 individuals in the state legislature can bottle up choices for the entire state."

As part of its political platform, the Kansas Democratic Party has said it supports full legalization of marijuana for personal and medical use. But the Republicans have a firm grip on Kansas politics. Sublett, a long-time Republican, believes the state GOP is shooting itself in the foot during an election year by alienating its voter base and ignoring the demand for cannabis legalization.

"They are absolute hypocrites and cowards, is what people are going to think," she said, "and they're going to lose more seats this next election, guaranteed."

Esau Freeman of Kansas for Change notes that state lawmakers try to avoid his organization's rallies at the state capitol in Topeka. "Legislators all take off for the afternoon or schedule something so they're not there," he said. As a result, "it falls on deaf ears."

Cannabis activism in a pot-hostile state can be exhausting. But Sublett says thinking of those who have died, and who would have benefitted from legal medical marijuana in her state, gives her a reason to go on.

"Honestly I have made promises to people on their deathbeds," she said. "I promised them we would not quit fighting."

Bruce Kennedy
Bruce Kennedy is a Colorado-based journalist and communications specialist who has been covering the legal cannabis industry since 2010. He's worked with CNN, NPR and Reuters TV in local and international news-- and has reported on cannabis issues for Leafly, The Cannabist, The Guardian and other organizations.
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