Marijuana Bill Supporters Hope for Expansion on 2017 Legislation

Jan 22, 2018

West Virginia passed the Medical Cannabis Act in April 2017, qualifying patients with a written doctor’s certification to use medical cannabis and to buy it from registered dispensaries. The bill was a big shock – no one thought it would actually pass. But supporters of the bill say it didn’t go nearly far enough, while opponents say it went too far.

On January 4th about 50 people gathered outside of the Capitol building to rally for more favorable legislation.

The bill that passed last year allows for the sale and consumption of pills, oils, gels, creams and ointments, and tinctures, among other things. Dispensaries cannot sell edibles, or what some call “gummies,” but medical cannabis products can be mixed into food or drinks by patients themselves. Vaporization is allowed, but smoking is prohibited. Patients may only obtain a 30-day supply of cannabis at a time.

Richard Ojeda (suit) listens during the "Make it Legal" rally.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

One of the rally speakers was WV Senator Richard Ojeda. He was the lead sponsor on the 2017 cannabis bill and said it didn’t go nearly far enough.

“You know when it got over to the House, they got rid of the plants, got rid of the gummies, no leaf… ” (the current law doesn’t allow patients to grow plants themselves).

“I want eight plants,” Ojeda said, “And it only can be by a person who has the medical marijuana card. So if you’re growing and you don’t have the card, then you’re breaking the law.”

Ojeda got into this fight in the first place because a few months earlier, Rusty Williams, a cancer survivor who self-medicated with cannabis during his treatment, walked into Ojeda’s office and asked him for help pushing through a medical marijuana bill.

Attendees at the "Make it Legal" rally.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

When Williams was diagnosed with cancer, he said his doctors told him he would have about four months to live without aggressive chemotherapy. And with aggressive chemotherapy he had about a 30 percent chance of beating his disease.

But the chemotherapy made him nauseated, lose his appetite, and experience terrible dizziness.  

“The world would spin so violently I couldn’t open my eyes,” said Williams. “And within 30 seconds of one hit of cannabis, that would stop. I was able to function, eat, I could sleep normally. But chemotherapy – I don’t know that there are words to properly describe what that feels like. You feel yourself dying. You feel your body dying. It’s a brutal feeling.”

Williams’ story resonated with Ojeda.

Senator Richard Ojeda (suit) and Rusty Williams (center right) talk with another attendee at the January 4th "Make it Legal" rally.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It just hit me,” said Ojeda. “I started thinking about 22 veterans [that] are committing suicide every day and thinking about some of the research I had seen in the past in reference to people who have used medical marijuana in other areas where they  have seen great results. And I started thinking, ‘You know, West Virginia is a place that absolutely could benefit greatly from medical marijuana.’”

Williams and Ojeda mobilized, recruiting advocates to call their legislators, and “shut down the phones,” as they put it. At the end of the session, a bill that wasn’t expected to make it out of committee, was signed into law.

Medical Marijuana is currently legal in 29 states, but is not legal, according to the federal government. That discrepancy is a big problem for opponents to the medical marijuana bill like Senator Ryan Weld.

“Per the federal government, it’s illegal,” said Weld. “We have what’s called the Supremacy Clause in the United States Constitution, and that means no state law can be in conflict with a federal law. Now if the federal government, if Congress, wants to pass a law to legalize marijuana, I don’t have a dog in the fight and that’s fine, it’s up to them to do so and they might, but at the time  it still is, illegal.”

Weld argued that by legalizing marijuana on the state level, state legislatures are setting up West Virginians to be in contempt of federal law. Under President Obama, he said, that might have been okay, but the Trump administration is very different than Obama’s.

“If this presidency, if the Trump administration, has shown one thing, it’s that they’re not always going to be predictable,” Weld said. “So I don’t think anyone could say – well, they’re definitely going to continue the policy of the Obama administration in adhering to what was called the Cole memo. That was basically a DOJ memo that said we’re not going to enforce federal marijuana laws that allowed for this kind of situation to flourish.”  

In fact, four days before we spoke with Weld, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued his own memo that said, “Given the department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and rescinded, effective immediately.”

But Ojeda has an entirely different take on the situation and is not worried about federal repercussions.

“They legalized it in other states,” Ojeda said. “If it was done in other states, why can’t it be done here? As a matter of fact, the current regime is the one who always says it wants to give states more rights. And then we finally did something, and passed historic legislation.”

At this point, though, no legislation has been introduced to either improve or remove the medical marijuana bill.


Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.