Advocates for the decriminalization of cannabis gathered Tuesday before a Morgantown City Council meeting. Having offered the council draft legislation, those advocates are also hoping to build a movement that pushes decriminalization and legalization efforts from city councils all the way to the statehouse.
About 50 people gathered in downtown Morgantown for a Tuesday night rally. Del. Danielle Walker, who represents Morgantown in the West Virginia House of Delegates’ 51st District was among those leading the event.
Walker said there are many arguments for decriminalization -- including giving more people access to medicine and correcting systemic issues within the criminal justice system.
“All the people that are in prisons and jails because of using a plant, of possessing a plant, they get more time than some of these other offenses. And then it becomes a race issue,” Walker said.
As Walker points out, cannabis arrests show a stark racial bias in the American criminal justice system. According to an analysis by the ACLU, African Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on cannabis-related charges.
While West Virginia passed a medical cannabis program during the 2017 legislative session, some advocates says getting that program off the ground has been slow going. Applications open next month for those wanting to enter the industry as growers, processors and distributors.
As a cancer survivor who has used cannabis for medical purposes, Rusty Williams is the patient advocate for the program and is also running for the House of Delegates in the 35th District. Williams said current law fails to address big issues related to cannabis policy.
“One of the key elements that was missing from the medical cannabis argument and debate was the fact that we still have a mandatory minimum for cultivation in West Virginia -- regardless of if you've got a seedling or if you've got a whole plant in your backyard,” Williams said. “If you get caught, you're going to jail.”
Williams drove to Morgantown from Charleston for the rally and the city council meeting. He said decriminalization in Morgantown is a good first step in pushing for similar policy in other municipalities -- as well as building up to legalization efforts on the state level.
“I think that once they see [that] a city has done this in West Virginia and the sky isn’t falling -- maybe that's the best way to get the message across. Because if we try to just talk to folks, like I said, they get it. Most folks get it," Williams said. “Most people see this for what it is. This is not a partisan issue, no matter how much they want to turn it into one. Cancer never asked me if I was Republican or Democrat. It just showed up and tried to take me out.”
Eli Baumwell of the ACLU of West Virginia presented a draft ordinance to the city council that would allow Morgantown to move forward with decriminalization. The proposal would reduce penalties for possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis to a fine of $15 and no jail time.
The measure is now under review by the city council but has not yet been formally introduced.
The Working Families Party, which organized the Tuesday event, says they have collected more than 600 signatures in support of decriminalization in Morgantown.