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Monday, January 30, 2023

Outdated Marijuana Laws = Stifling Democracy?

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
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Voters in neighboring Missouri have legalized recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, Kansas remains in the minority of states where medical or recreational marijuana is not allowed.

A symptom of a dysfunctional democracy in Kansas is that legislators have not updated our marijuana laws. Polls have shown for years that Kansans support legalizing recreational marijuana and taxing it. Yes, entertaining. Not just medical.

For example, the 2022 FOX News Voter Analysis poll found that 63 percent of Kansas voters supported “legalizing the recreational use of marijuana nationwide,” including nearly a third of Kansans voting Republican for governor. It’s not just Democratic voters.

But lawmakers don’t seem to care.

America is a democracy, meaning “rule by the people.” However, democracy does not look the same everywhere.

Every country has some form of government as a “democratic republic” (often called simply “republic”). In this system, elected state legislatures are supposed to represent the general will to make laws.

Every country also has some form of “direct democracy” where people vote directly on laws. In many states like Missouri, citizens can bypass lawmakers and put potential laws on the ballot themselves. But, Kansans don’t have that right. Instead, Kansans are only allowed to vote on constitutional amendments that the Kansas legislature itself puts on the ballot. In short, the legislature holds you tight — tightly.

This year, Kansas rejected two of three amendments proposed by lawmakers: one to make it easier to ban abortion and another to make lawmakers more powerful. Your disobedience would probably make most legislators fearful of what you might do if you could pass laws yourselves, so they would likely not support giving you that power at their expense.

In most states that have legalized recreational marijuana, citizens have self-administered it using direct democracy to bypass politicians. How many politicians in these states have publicly opposed recreational marijuana out of fear of getting re-elected, but have happily voted to legalize it on the privacy ballot? Or, are politicians so disconnected from citizens that these votes actually shocked them?

Whatever the politics elsewhere, recreational marijuana is unlikely to become legal in Kansas anytime soon. Our legislators have not even legalized medical marijuana for the sick and dying. Voters are not allowed to do that.

If elected officials had tracked public opinion on marijuana for years, Kansas would have been a regional leader on the issue. But they didn’t. Instead, Kansas lawmakers skipped a ripe opportunity for economic growth, kept the marijuana economy on the black market and sent Kansas dollars to grow Colorado’s economy.

This year, Missouri supporters of legalization argued explicitly that Missouri would benefit economically from Kansans crossing the state line to buy marijuana. Unless Kansas militarizes that border, practically nothing will stop a Kansas man from breaking the law by bringing marijuana back from Missouri to Kansas. And it could potentially be a big market. Half of Kansans live less than an hour’s drive from Missouri. Missouri’s state budget says thank you to the Kansas legislature.

The majority of Americans don’t use marijuana themselves, but they also couldn’t care less if others were doing so in private. Whatever you think of marijuana, the key fact here, like it or not, is that many Kansans enjoy marijuana and someone is taking advantage of it. This person is not just our schools, our roads, or our economic growth. If democracy in Kansas works better, the reality will look very different.

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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