The End of Reefer Madness



For those of us from a certain generation, if you search the recesses of our closets hard enough, you’ll likely find a faded (too small to fit now) black shirt bearing the red logo of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) program. Millions of dollars were spent throughout the ’80s and ’90s teaching kids about the evils of drug abuse, putting the fear of God in you about anything that might even be remotely considered a drug.

Truth be told, D.A.R.E was just the latest in a long line of drug abuse prevention efforts that ranged from the earnest to the absurd. Despite all the money, cool mascots, and free shirts, have we missed something in our conversation about drug use in America?

Of all the drugs D.A.R.E and its historical predecessors sought to warn us against- perhaps none got more airtime than marijuana. Long reviled as everything from “the devil’s lettuce” to being used as part of racial tropes, generations of Americans grew up learning to steer well clear of marijuana or anything resembling it. Today however, marijuana, and the broader cannabis family, are the talk of statehouses across the country as lawmakers grapple with new research on the effectiveness of cannabis in treating illness, sustainable agriculture, and more.

Before we go too much further, we should probably get some terms straight. Cannabis is a genus of flowering plant that contains 100+ different species of plants. One such species of cannabis is marijuana. Another is hemp. Still with us? Ok, cool.

Marijuana is the species of cannabis that contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)- aka the stuff that gets you high and makes you want to eat all the chips. Hemp, on the other hand, contains no THC, but does contain cannabidiol (CBD). CBD won’t give you a high like THC does, but instead produces a relaxing effect. That’s why your mom uses CBD oil for her joint pain. (CBD can also be derived from marijuana as well). Hemp, by the way, also has remarkable utility. It can be used as everything from rope to clothing to paper and has a myriad of agricultural uses.

Kansas currently allows the sale of “full spectrum” CBD products, so long as they contain less than .3% THC (.3% being the level at which THC is criminalized at the federal level).

In 2018, Kansas established a pilot program for the cultivation of industrial hemp. The following year, this pilot program became a permanent Commercial Industrial Hemp Program, allowing individuals to complete a process to become licensed to grow hemp that can then be turned into various products. Unlike our neighbors to the west in Colorado, cannabis with over .3% THC is still illegal to use recreational in Kansas and unlike our neighbors in Missouri and Oklahoma, cannabis cannot be prescribed for medical use in the state.

Some of the people working to help lawmakers and others understand the potential that cannabis can bring to our state are Kelly Rippel and Robin Bonsall. Both grew up in families that took very different approaches to how they viewed cannabis. In his family, Rippel says his dad shared his experience as a student in the ’70s that participated in a study on cannabis. “We found out that you couldn’t actually kill it all the way,” Rippel’s dad told him. “It will always come back.” According to Rippel, “that kind of stuck with me…we’re spending all these resources trying to kill something that we know grows well here. It didn’t quite make sense to me.”

Bonsall grew up with a more traditional view of cannabis, but her husband grew up with a “healthy curiosity” about the plant. Inspired by their shared passion, Bonsall and Rippel co-founded “Kansans for Hemp,” in 2016, an advocacy organization dedicated to “equity, growth, support, and evidence-based/sustainable best practices of the industrial hemp industry in Kansas.”

When asked about the hardest part of this work, both speak to the challenge that years of propaganda play when trying to educate the public about the potential benefits of cannabis. “There is a real fear that people have because of the propaganda they were exposed to,” said Bonsall. “Our challenge is to reeducate and find new ways of teaching people.”

“Being located in the middle of the Animal Health Corridor will prove to be a massive benefit for the Kansas economy,” according to Rippel. “When we talk about the number of sectors hemp contributes to, I mean nine to ten separate industries, ranging from single use plastics and more durable biocomposites, to animal feed and construction material for housing, and the list goes on…”

Bonsall also speaks to the impact that expanded industrial hemp production would have on Kansas’ agricultural industry. “There is a significant possibility that cannabis and [specifically] hemp can rejuvenate soil…[and also] improve and restore soils that have been destroyed by pesticides.”

Bonsall is also putting her money where mouth is. The Bonsalls recently purchased 18 acres of land in Southeast Topeka, for the purpose of a homestead and industrial hemp farming operation. Bonsall is excited to be part of a resurgence in Southeast Topeka. Her plans call for everything from a therapy garden to allow agri-tourism to flourish to a forward-thinking farm operation that includes hemp seeds in its crop rotation.

So what’s next in the story of cannabis in Kansas? In 2021, a bill legalizing the use of cannabis for medical purposes passed the Kansas House, but stalled in the Senate. This year, legislators look poised to pass a bill of some kind allowing medicinal use. As of the writing of this article (an important distinction with how quickly things have been moving in the legislature this year), Senate Bill 560 represents the best chance of being passed- with members from both parties eager to see a vote. The bill would allow cannabis to be prescribed as a treatment for chronic pain, as well as almost two dozen other ailments.

Both Rippel and Bonsall are optimistic about the future, and excited to take on the challenges ahead. “Stay kind and stay curious,” Bonsall says. “As long as people are willing to allow someone else’s perspective, the [resulting] conversations will do their jobs in removing the fear from people’s minds and hearts.”

One thing is for certain- the days of “Reefer Madness” and “Just Say No” are long gone. In its place, we are seeing a more thoughtful dialogue that just might open the door to new possibilities for all Kansans.

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Angel Romero

Angel is a proud double-Ichabod alum, earning his political science and law degrees from the "Harvard of the Midwest" a.k.a. Washburn University. He is Topeka's Cheerleader, an amazing leader and host of Ballots + Brews on KSEF-DB. Nerd-out with Angel, your local politics and pints aficionado, every Thursday as he takes you through the world of politics and local brews, complete with sassy commentary and real-world application. Learn more at

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