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What will legal weed in Missouri mean for Kansas residents?

A car with its lights on drives past a green and white political sign on the side of the road. The sign reads: "Legal MO 2022, Vote YES on 3."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A sign encouraging voters to vote for Amendment 3 which legalizes recreational marijuana use in Missouri sits near a sidewalk at St. Andrew's Episcopal church which was a polling location in Kansas City, Missouri, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Police officers in Johnson County’s biggest cities say they do not expect Missouri's impending recreational marijuana law to change much about their operations. Marijuana possession is still illegal, as is driving while impaired.

Johnson Countians shouldn’t expect police checkpoints to pop up at the border once Missouri’s recreational marijuana law goes into effect.

Police officers in Johnson County’s biggest cities say they do not expect the impending new law to change much about their operations. Marijuana is still illegal in Kansas, after all.

Change could be coming from a different direction, though: the county’s top two law enforcement agencies – both the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices – are casting a wary eye toward Topeka as the Kansas Legislature gears up for another round of talks about medical marijuana.

Debating medical cannabis in Kansas

Legalizing cannabis for medical use was top of mind for Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe when asked recently about possible impacts of Missouri voters’ approval earlier this month of adult use of recreational marijuana.

Howe and the county sheriff’s office oppose it. But with Kansas one of only three states that hasn’t legalized some form of marijuana use (the others are Nebraska and Idaho), pressure is on for some change in state law.

Gov. Laura Kelly has said she favors medical marijuana, and legislative hearings on the subject were already held last month.

“I think the devil is in the details,” Howe said. “How do you do it so it’s not abused?”

Greg Smith, a former state senator, represented the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in opposing during testimony last month before a special committee.

He presented a list of negative effects it could have, including a potential for more car accidents and the expense of replacing dogs used in K-9 operations that have been trained to sniff out marijuana.

But given his past experience in the statehouse, Smith told the special committee, he expects the bill to pass.

Proponents say compounds in marijuana plants hold promise for treatment of pain, glaucoma, seizures and nausea from cancer treatments. But until recently, it hadn’t been explored much as medicine because of its illegality. It is still illegal at the federal level.

Possible impacts of Missouri's legalization

A man in a green shirt stands in front of shelves lined with colorful boxes. He points to a product on the shelf second from top.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Ryan Chorice at The Hub smoke shop in Kansas City.

In a recent interview, Howe said he understands the desire for treatments that might be an alternative to opioids or an effective treatment of seizure disorders.

“If someone is going through cancer treatment and they use medical marijuana versus using opiates, I see that as a potential positive usage. I’m not a medical doctor, so I can’t tell you whether or not that would really work,” he said.

But a lot will depend on whether the state lawmakers get it right and “actually listen to our medical community,” when crafting the fine points of the bill, he said.

He cautioned that legalizing medical use could end up with abuse by unscrupulous doctors writing unnecessary prescriptions, if the law isn’t done right.

“I think we’re going to fall into the same trap that other states have,” and that people may end up being able to get marijuana cards for problems as trivial as a hangnail, he said.

Howe’s opposition focuses on the negatives he sees. For instance, legal recreational marijuana has not really stopped illegal drug dealing in some other states because organized crime groups can sell it cheaper than state-regulated providers that levy taxes, he said.

Medical marijuana is often an initial step toward legalizing it recreationally, he said, adding that can be concerning for its possible effects on teenagers.

Howe referenced studies showing teenagers who start using marijuana have shown some negative cognition and academic outcomes.

Crime is another issue. Marijuana-related violent crime has been on the rise in Johnson County the past few years, with a recent shooting death in Olathe attributed to an attempt to steal marijuana.

Howe said he doesn’t expect to see Missouri’s legal weed have a positive impact.

“I would be willing to bet money that we’re not going to see a drop in crime,” he said.

What local law enforcement officials are saying

That said, Howe and other law enforcement officers in the county said Missouri’s new law won’t change things in the county’s law enforcement approach.

Missouri’s law becomes effective Dec. 8, but that’s just the date the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services starts transitioning the existing medical license holders to recreational licenses.

It will likely be until at least February before some legal recreational sales will start being made.

Given the increasing leniency on sentencing and plea agreements and the workload of police departments, Howe said he does not expect any special weed traps to catch people driving from Missouri into Kansas.

“Go look at our jail. You’re not going to find first and second time possession folks sitting in our jail,” he said.

Several police department officials said they didn’t expect much to change either.

Marijuana possession is still illegal, as is driving while impaired. They’ll carry out the law, but none are expected to ramp up interdiction efforts specifically for recreational marijuana possession.

Leawood has less than a mile of shared border with Missouri and has never done checkpoints, said police spokesperson Brad Robbins.

“Our officers are charged with enforcing Kansas state law and the possession of marijuana is still illegal in this state. The greater availability of marijuana in the metro area will most likely impact the frequency with which our officers encounter it, but our job remains the same,” he wrote in an email.

In Prairie Village, Capt. Ivan Washington said it is too early to speculate on what impact Missouri’s law could have on crime.

“Our stance is: marijuana is illegal in the state of Kansas and our officers will use discretion,” but take every step necessary to enforce the law, he said.

John Lacy, Overland Park Police spokesperson, also said it is too early to know how the area will be impacted.

But he said rumors about road blocks are not true: “There is no ‘special enforcement’ we are doing here in Overland Park.”

This story was originally published on the Shawnee Mission Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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