by Nomin Ujiyediin, Kansas News Service
When it comes to marijuana, Kansas is a red state in an increasingly green country.
Three of its neighbors — Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri — have legalized some form of the drug in recent years. Yet Kansas remains one of four states in the country without a comprehensive medical or recreational marijuana program.
That’s not for lack of trying. This spring, the Legislature considered a bill allowing patients and caregivers to possess CBD — one chemical in marijuana — containing small amounts of THC, a psychoactive component of the plant. The Kansas Health Institute reports that lawmakers have introduced 18 medical marijuana bills since 2006. This year, one got a hearing at the Capitol.
But law enforcement officers representing several of the state’s agencies and professional organizations testified against it. The bill never made it to a vote.
“I only ask that you give deference to the experience, to the opinions of the law enforcement community,” said Kirk Thompson, director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the top law enforcement agency in the state. “We’ve seen the negative side of this issue.”
The agency denied requests for an interview with Thompson and didn’t answer emailed questions about its marijuana enforcement strategy. But Thompson’s statement echoes the position of many of the state’s law enforcement agencies and organizations.
They argue that even legalization of medical marijuana would increase car accidents and violent crime and make it easier for foreign drug cartels to move weed onto the black market.
Law enforcement officers say weed is inherently tied to violence, especially from Mexican cartels. And they report an increase in marijuana-related traffic stops in Kansas, especially since Colorado legalized recreational sales of the drug in 2014.
“In every way, marijuana is driving up public health and public safety concerns,” said Jeffrey Stamm, executive director of the Kansas City-based Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, under the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “In terms of the psychopharmacology, the economic, the criminal, the social costs of marijuana use, cops, in fact, are the experts.”
But ultimately, it’s hard to know what impact marijuana has on public safety in Kansas because the state doesn’t collect much of that information.
Anecdotes and statistics
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration publishes data on its Cannabis Eradication Program, including arrests, number of plants seized and the value of assets seized in each state.
But the Kansas Bureau of Investigation doesn’t do the same.
KBI says in 2018, more than 45 percent of its crime lab’s blood drug tests came back positive for THC. In 2013, only 29 percent of those blood tests indicated the presence of THC. But the agency doesn’t track the total number of marijuana seizures in the state, nor does it track the total number of marijuana arrests.
In an email, a spokeswoman said the agency’s statewide crime reporting system was “extremely outdated,” deriving statistics from police reports that don’t distinguish which specific drugs were involved in an incident.
The agency also doesn’t track the origin of marijuana seizures in Kansas — whether the drugs came from inside the state, from another U.S. state such as Colorado or California, or from an international source like a Mexican cartel.
A 2016 survey of law enforcement agencies conducted by the Kansas Attorney General’s office found that it’s hard for police to conclusively find out where drugs are from. They rely on statements from suspects, receipts, labels on packages, or stops near Kansas’ western border to determine whether marijuana comes from pot-friendly Colorado.
Some survey respondents said they had made an increasing number of arrests for DUIs and people carrying marijuana products, especially edibles, since 2014. Others, however, noted no increase or said sample sizes were too small to tell.
Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Chris Bauer, who teaches officers to recognize whether drivers have been using drugs, said the patrol has noticed an increase in drivers being impaired by marijuana. The Highway Patrol says 62 percent of lab tests of impaired drivers in 2018 came back positive for THC. Two years earlier, 54 percent of labs found traces of the drug. Yet those tests aren’t always a reliable indicator of how recently someone used cannabis.
In a phone interview, Bauer said he believes the increase is a result of “society’s changing attitude toward cannabis, and then also the fact that we’re surrounded by states who now have legalized it.”
In 2018, the Kansas Highway Patrol confiscated 13,029 pounds of marijuana in 322 seizures. In 2017, the agency made 399 seizures and confiscated 7,488 pounds.
Bauer said many troopers have begun getting rid of small amounts of marijuana by the side of the road during traffic stops, rather than arresting and charging everyone for possession. Those stops don’t get recorded.
“Maybe we don’t want to take everybody to jail for a small amount of marijuana,” Bauer said. “Jails are full. We sort of have to triage what we’re doing.”
Kansas Department of Transportation data shows that drug-related traffic collisions have remained at about 0.5 percent of all accidents over the past decade, but the agency does not collect information on specific drugs.
‘Arrows in their quiver’
State Sen. David Haley, a former prosecutor who co-sponsored the medical marijuana bill in the Kansas Senate this year, said the state has a strong law enforcement lobby. He thinks officers want to keep marijuana illegal as a pretext to stop and search people.
“I think law enforcement wants to keep as many arrows, if you will, in their quiver,” he said. “I can’t think of any other reason that their lobby has been so adamant.”
Brian Leininger, another former prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney in DUI cases, agrees.
“Police and other government officials have a lot of social capital,” he said. “They want the status quo. They make their living enforcing the drug laws.”
For about five years, Leininger served as the general counsel for the Kansas Highway Patrol. As a private defense attorney, he still speaks with police regularly and says officers often tell him they oppose the state’s marijuana laws but don’t think they can speak out publicly.
“All the time, officers tell me and other people that ‘it’s really foolish this is illegal. I wish they’d just make it legal. It would make my job easier,’” Leininger said. “‘Alcoholics are violent and dangerous and bad drivers. People under the influence of marijuana are generally calm.’”
He thinks attitudes will change as older officers start retiring and societal attitudes continue to change.
“As the officers get younger, a higher and higher percentage of them grew up with marijuana,” he said. “Eventually, when 45 of the other states have legalized it entirely, maybe Kansas will come around.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports out of Topeka for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics. You can send her an email at nomin at kcur dot org, or reach her on @NominUJ
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