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3 Years After West Virginia's Medical Cannabis Program Was Created, Tweaks Continue Ahead Of Launch

Medical Marijuana
John Locher
AP Photo

Lawmakers took a major step in 2017 toward legalizing cannabis use in West Virginia when they passed a bill that created a medical program. But nearly three years later, the program still isn’t operational — and many say it’s still more than a year away from launching. 

This session, lawmakers continue to offer some major tweaks to the as-of-yet-launched program. Those proposals – which are included in multiple bills – could change which forms would be considered medically acceptable.

Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, has been working to improve the state’s medical cannabis program as it gets off the ground.  He said the original legislation that created the program still needs many fixes. 

“There were some flaws in the original bill that was passed. We forced that bill to the floor [in the House of Delegates when it] came across from the Senate back in 2017. There were some regulatory issues that were in built in this that we've had to work our way through," Bates said. "So, it's regulation heavy. It's complex."

This session, lawmakers are working their way through a Department of Health and Human Resources rules bundle — Senate Bill 339 —  that further defines how the medical cannabis program will operate.

But there’s one aspect of the bill that has been getting most of the attention.

Currently, the medical program only allows patients to use the drug in the form of pills, oils, gels, creams and other forms available for vaporization or nebulization. It excludes dry leaf or “flower” — the smokeable or ingestible form of cannabis most people might be familiar with.

That could change if Senate Bill 339 passes.

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee adopted an amendment that would allow the medical cannabis program’s commissioner to add flower as an acceptable form. Advocates such as Bates say that expansion would be a major improvement. The measure is on the amendment stage Wednesday in the House of Delegates. 

“To ingest it or to inhale it are the most effective forms of actually using cannabis," he said. "That's what patients want and that's what patients expect when they go in the door."

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have made medical cannabis legal. But, as Bates points out, West Virginia’s program has been slow getting off the ground.

The state had to find a way to circumvent federal banking laws because cannabis is listed as a Schedule I drug. And just last year, lawmakers passed a measure that allows cannabis businesses to be vertically integrated — allowing them to act at once as growers, processors and dispensaries. 

Rusty Williams serves as the patient advocate for the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, a panel tasked with making recommendations to lawmakers. He said progress is happening, albeit slowly. 

Williams said there’s a need to include flower — or cannabis in it’s plant form — in what could be available to patients. But, he said, another key aspect is allowing people — who may not have the means to pay for medical cannabis products or may not have geographic access — the ability to grow it on their own. 

“I think as far as getting our medical bill fixed — getting it where it needs to be to promote better patient access — homegrown is absolutely crucial,” he said.

Another measure being debated in the Legislature, Senate Bill 752, would change state code to allow the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board's recommendations to determine what forms of the product would be available to patients. 

The introduced version of the bill would have also allowed patients and caregivers the ability to grow their own cannabis. However, in a Tuesday meeting of the Senate Judiciary, a committee substitute struck out language that would allow that. 

Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, is a doctor who specializes in pulmonology. He said, given his experience with patients, he supports adding flower to the state’s medical program. 

"I'm a very strong opponent of smoking — whether that be cannabis or whether that be tobacco. But again, these conditions are spelled out so that people can have medical cannabis for pretty dire situations,” Takubo said. 

“They're very apologetic for using cannabis [before it is legally available]. And I tell them, ‘Don't ever be apologetic for that if it's helping you,’” he added.

But not all lawmakers are supportive of adding new forms to the state’s medical cannabis program. Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, is opposed to cannabis in all forms and in all ways. He disputes the idea that cannabis could be used for medical purposes.

“They are anecdotal things. And so if that were to come down from federally and say, okay that this is a drug that works with this condition. And if you prescribe it for this, this is what you can expect — whether it's pain relief, whether it's disease control,” Tarr said. “Those things, if that research existed and it goes to an FDA process — like any other medicine that we would, that you would have your children take because you trust that it's a tested drug —  then I'm completely okay with that. But we're bypassing all that and calling it medical in order to get a step to recreational — and anything else is a ploy.”

Some lawmakers, like Bates, want to go even further. He would like to see cannabis legalized for adult recreational use. 

A bill that would do that has been triple committee referenced and its likely too late in the game to happen this session.  However, state officials continue to ready the medical cannabis program for launch.

As session winds down, the Legislature may very well expand on current law to allow the plant in its purest form to be used. 

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