A Kansas bill seeking to reduce felony violations for possession of marijuana has failed to pass, surprising advocates as well as legislators.

The House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee voted 7-4 against the bill that would make possession of marijuana a misdemeanor, no matter how many times someone had been arrested or convicted for it.

Following a House Committee vote, taken Feb. 23, 2020, some lawmakers expressed shock at the decision to uphold such harsh punishment simply for possession of cannabis.

“A felony conviction is a heavy burden for an offender, around an offense that, in many states now, is not a crime at all. It’s pretty harsh,” said committee chair Rep. J. Russell Jennings, (R).

Jennings said he took the vote as a sign that Kansas lawmakers are not ready to legalize marijuana, including medicinal cannabis.

Current Kansas law under House Bill 2686 states that a third conviction of marijuana possession is a felony punishable by up to 14 months in prison, though offenders often receive probation.

The failed bill had initially intended to include a clause stating that offenders currently in prison for marijuana possession would be released.

However, the committee removed that provision from the measure, which supporters of the bill accepted in the hope that it would give the bill a better chance of passing.

Marijuana Activists and Democrats in Kansas are surprised

Yet the measure failed to clear the GOP-controlled committee, even though one Republican member thought it was a step in the right direction.

“I thought this was mild enough that it might get through the committee,” said Democratic Rep. Boog Highberger of Lawrence, Kansas, home to the liberal University of Kansas. “I can’t explain it.”

The Kansas state chapter of NORML called the decision to continue to treat marijuana possession like a felony as having been “designed to mitigate the cruel laws for marijuana possession in Kansas. Kansas legislators continue to persecute unnecessarily.”

No medical marijuana in Kansas

Thus far, no Kansas legislative committee has taken up a medical marijuana bill. Although, another House panel - the Federal and State Affairs Committee - is having one drafted and it could be ready as early as mid-March.

“I still don’t believe that marijuana should be legalized,” said GOP Rep. Stephen Owens. “I believe this was a step in that direction.”

Kansas Governor agrees with legalization

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, a democrat, has said she would sign a marijuana legalization bill if lawmakers sent one to her desk, but that medical marijuana is her priority.

“I have always said that I want it well-regulated so that it’s controlled so that it’s not the first step to legalization of marijuana,” Gov. Kelly said. “I don’t want that. I want it to be seen as a pharmaceutical and controlled as we do that.”

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