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SPOTLIGHT
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Changing attitudes

Published on -7/30/2014, 9:01 AM

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As Bob Dylan used to sing: "For the times, they are a-changin'."

How else to describe an entry in the Wild West Festival parade down Hays' Main Street earlier this month with young activists touting the benefits of cannabis? The sign-toting volunteers were working on Republican gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Winn's campaign. The Wichita businesswoman seeks to legalize marijuana in Kansas and promote industrial hemp production, both as ways to boost the economy and reduce incarceration costs of non-violent offenders.

Will Winn win the Aug. 5 primary? Highly doubtful. But the times, they are indeed a-changin'.

A SurveyUSA poll taken last year showed 70 percent of Kansans favor the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Seventy percent! Recreational use only received 38 percent favorability, but first things first.

Legislation has been introduced in Topeka to take the first step. Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, has attempted to work the bill for the last three years but can't get it out of committee. No hearings even have been scheduled.

How long will lawmakers be able to tell the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature that even though a doctor might believe cannabis would help ease the pain of multiple sclerosis or post-traumatic stress, these elected leaders don't even want to talk about it? As the tsunami of Boomers who experienced the 1960s and '70s keeps retiring, the elderly vote will become more insistent. Approximately half the states already allow medicinal marijuana.

To nobody's surprise, Kansas attitudes are a little more conservative than other states in this great nation. A Gallup poll, also taken in 2013, had 58 percent of Americans saying marijuana should be legalized -- period.

Two states already have legalized recreational marijuana: Washington and Colorado. Voters in Alaska and Oregon will decide the recreational question in November. It might become an economic question at some point, particularly with Colorado. Our next-door neighbor unquestionably is receiving a lot of Kansas dollars to boost its economy.

The times, they are a-changin'.

"Putting people in prison and trying to legislate your particular brand of morality is not what Kansans have asked for and not what we're going to stand for," writes Esau Freeman, president and co-founder of Kansas for Change, on the advocacy group's website.

Kansas for Change wants medical marijuana, agricultural hemp and legalization or decriminalization of marijuana for responsible adult use.

The FBI reports there were 658,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2012. There were 4,700 marijuana-related offenses in Kansas that year, most for possession. Jails and prisons are filled with these non-violent offenders. The amount of money the state could save in incarceration costs, law enforcement resources and drug treatment programs is enormous. The number of individuals, disproportionately minority by the way, whose lives wouldn't be ruined by a drug that's less dangerous than alcohol would be equally large.

A story in the L.A. Times reported more than a third of adults have admitted smoking it -- including the past three presidents. The New York Times recently ran an editorial encouraging the federal government to end its ban on marijuana, and to let states decide for themselves. Even in states that are pushing the envelope, the conflicting state and federal laws are causing problems.

Kansas law allows up to a year in jail for first-time offenders of marijuana possession, regardless of amount. Second-time offenders can receive up to three-and-a-half years in prison.

Earlier this year, a Kansas City, Mo., woman died in Goodland. A stop for speeding led to the discovery of a small amount of marijuana Brenda Sewell had purchased in Colorado to help several medical problems, including hepatitis C, thyroid problems and fibromyalgia. Her subsequent arrest, then three days of being denied her prescribed medications while in the Sherman County Jail, likely resulted in the 58-year-old woman's death.

The times couldn't be a-changin' soon enough for her. Will Kansas lawmakers allow at least a hearing in 2015? Dylan's words still apply: "Come senators, Congressmen, please heed the call. Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall."

"For the times, they are a-changin'."

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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