A bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state is bypassing the committee process, putting it on the fast track for a vote in the House. Senate Bill 386 was read for a first time on the floor Thursday night after a 54 to 40 procedural vote to bring it straight to the floor.
The vote has been called historic in the chamber. But several delegates argued pulling the bill out of the committee process was the only way members would get to put the medical marijuana bill to a vote this session.
Senate Bill 386 would create the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act, legalizing medical marijuana in the state. It passed out of the Senate Wednesday on a 28 to 6 vote after being worked through the chamber’s Health and Judiciary Committees.
The bill, titled the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act, would create a 17-member commission in the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. That commission would oversee the program, creating rules for doctors, patients, growers and dispensers that would then be approved by the Legislature.
Certain illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, or seizures could constitute a doctor prescribing marijuana under the bill. Patients with a prescription would also be able to grow up to two plants for personal use. The medical cannabis program, however, wouldn’t begin until July 2018.
The bill was on Second Reading in the chamber Friday after the procedural vote Thursday night to bypass the committee process.
Majority Leader Daryl Cowles of Morgan County says the bill was supposed to go to the House Health and Judiciary Committees before being brought to the floor. He opposed the motion last night to dispense with the committee references.
“Well, I thought it was fair and reasonable to send it to those committees," Cowles said, "The issue of medical marijuana, while it enjoys some support, the bill is poorly written. It has some technical flaws, it has some legal issues, and that bill needs to be worked in the Health Committee and in the Judiciary Committee to work some of those things out. So I was certainly in support of sending it to committee before it was ever to be considered by the House.”
Republican Delegate Mike Folk of Berkeley County made the motion to pull the bill Thursday. Folk says the move was important. "Because I believe that was the only way this bill would ever make it to the floor," he said, "and so it was important just to; and it already passed two committees in the Senate.”
Several lawmakers – both Republicans and Democrats – gave floor speeches Thursday night criticizing House leadership for not prioritizing a medical marijuana bill in the chamber.
“The vote that happened last night sent a very serious message that the people of West Virginia want this," Folk noted, "Their representatives have been told that, and we’ve talked this to death for years. 29 other states already have it; it’s the compassionate thing to do for those people that have illnesses.”
Republican Charlotte Lane of Kanawha County was one of those delegates who’d introduced a medical marijuana bill this session in the House. Her bill was never placed on an agenda, but she wants to see a program in the state.
“Some of us in the House have introduced medical marijuana bills, but we realized the House wasn’t really going to take up our bills," Lane said, "so when the Senate sent over a bill that was a good bill, then we took that opportunity to just say, let’s dispense with the committee reference, let’s just leave it on the floor, and that way we can vote for it, and we saw that as the only opportunity that we were going to get this session to vote on medical marijuana.”
At the start of Friday’s floor session, however, House Judiciary Chair John Shott of Mercer County asked to address the members of the chamber.
“The majority of the members here clearly expressed their desire to take up a bill on medical marijuana," he said, "I was not part of that majority, but I accept and respect the decision of the majority... My philosophy has always been, even if you don’t agree with something that we take up down here, we ought to try to make it the best that it can possibly be."
Shott says he studied the Senate bill Thursday night and does have some concerns with it. He’s worried about the amount of power the commission would actually have over everything from prescriptions to packaging. He asked the members to allow him to make a motion to delay consideration of the bill until Monday.
“My commitment to you is if you will give my staff and my council; chief council has agreed to give up his Sunday, I’m willing to stay here this Sunday and work on this," Shott explained, "and present something to you on Second Reading on Monday for you to vote on and give you those choices.”
Republican Pat McGeehan of Hancock County, a member of the Liberty Caucus who joined Democrats in moving the bill to the floor, questioned Shott.
“Sir, I respect your position, and I do not intend to object if you would give us your word that some of the members of the prevailing side of the motion that carried last night would have at least have some sort of access or involved in the amendment process,” McGeehan said.
“Anyone who wants to stay over Sunday and work with us on this is welcome to participate,” Shott replied.
Minority Leader Tim Miley of Harrison County spoke in favor of Shott’s request. He told the body he spoke with Shott and House Speaker Tim Armstead Friday morning.
“I want everyone to know that despite, at times, there being an unhealthy dose of paranoia and fear and skepticism in this body, I do think everyone’s prepared to work forward on this issue in a bi-partisan manner to get a great product whether you are ultimately for or against the bill,” Miley said.
The bill was postponed until Monday when members will be able to offer amendments to the medicinal cannabis act. No objections were made to the motion.
If House leadership does not delay the medical marijuana bill again, Senate Bill 386 would be up for a final vote in the chamber on Tuesday. If the bill is amended by the House, it would have to return to the Senate for its approval before being sent to the governor for a signature.
Gov. Jim Justice has said he could support medical marijuana in the state.