An invitation only Wednesday event in Charleston was billed as a symposium on marijuana, but skewed towards opposition of the drug’s legalization for medical and recreational purposes. The event, titled The Colorado Experiment: A Look Back and What You Need to Know, touched on ecological, medical, public safety and law enforcement positions related to marijuana -- with all of the speakers standing in opposition to reforms that would provide wider access to the drug.
Mike Stuart, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, hosted the event alongside the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a regionally-focused federal task force aimed at curbing drug trafficking and the National Marijuana Initiative, a program administered by the federally run HIDTAs.
Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area; a former U.S. Attorney from Colorado, a hospital pharmacist; a research ecologist and the executive director of a non-profit opposed to legalization and commercialization were among the speakers.
The event comes as federal agencies continue to delve into marijuana’s potential effects through research but have yet to reach a final conclusion. Wednesday’s presentations -- which focused exclusively on oppositional viewpoints on marijuana -- also come at a time when national trends indicate the American public and state governments are increasingly supportive of legalization.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico allow marijuana for medical use. Ten states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational purposes. It remains illegal on the federal level.
Public opinion polling by Gallup and the Pew Research Center -- conducted separately and both released in October 2018 -- indicate roughly two-thirds of Americans support the legalization of marijuana.
While that research doesn’t drill down on opinions at the state level, polling from Orion Strategies suggests support for marijuana legalization in West Virginia -- for doctor-prescribed medical purposes and for recreational purposes for citizens over the age of 21 -- has been increasing in recent years.
Data released in 2018 show 67 percent of West Virginians polled support medical marijuana if prescribed by a doctor and 34 percent of West Virginians for recreational purposes. Those numbers are up from the earliest-recorded data from Orion, which show 52 percent of West Virginian polled supported medical marijuana and 20 percent supported legalization for recreational purposes in 2015.
But some presenters warned that public opinion on the subject does not equal a safe product.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana executive director Kevin Sabet likened marijuana legalization to tobacco. Sabet said tobacco’s health effects were unknown a century ago -- but since then, research and public opinion have changed and the substance is generally understood to be harmful.
“It’s a brilliant marketing strategy,” Sabet, who also worked on drug policy in the Obama Administration, said of marijuana industry leaders and lobbyists who support legalization.
Sabet’s organization opposes legalization but specifically emphasizes a stance against commercialization. He said he believes research will ultimately lead to marijuana becoming the “next tobacco.”
But at least some potentially harmful effects of marijuana are linked to illegal growing practices and chemicals used in that process.
Dr. Mourad Gabriel, co-founder of the Integral Ecology Research Center and a faculty member at the University of California-Davis, detailed his own research that shows rodenticides (chemicals placed around illegal grow sites to deter rodents) are linked to harmful and potentially deadly effects on water and wildlife, specifically on fishers -- a weasel-like mammal inhabiting the Pacific Northwest.
Gabriel urged stringent testing of marijuana to detect these harmful compounds. He also noted that his research has not focused on the potential effects these compounds may have on human life.
“What I worry about is an immuno-compromised individual -- someone who may have cancer, someone may have AIDS -- and they're looking for an alleviation of their pain and suffering. They may turn to [medical marijuana] and what I would expect -- as if that was a family member of mine -- I would want to make sure that that material is 100 percent screened as any medical product and with the same stringent standards,” Gabriel said.
Dr. William Lynch, a pharmacist at Kennedy University Hospital in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, cited dozens of studies that link marijuana to mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and psychosis. He also described an incident in which 19-year-old died after jumping off a building in Colorado while under the influence of an edible containing THC, an active ingredient found in marijuana.
Other speakers at Wednesday’s event said public support has increased as access to marijuana around the country has increased. However, they warned that increased potency -- with some saying modern forms of marijuana is “not your parents’” version -- and insufficient research should be a cause for concern in legalizing marijuana for any purpose.
At least one speaker at the event, National Marijuana Initiative director Ed Shemelya, has a history of assisting in the defeat of state-level marijuana legislation.
In 2015, the NMI assisted the Kentucky Baptist Convention in defeating a bill in the Kentucky General Assembly that would have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. According to Murray, Kentucky public radio station WKMS, Shemelya -- who is a retired commander with the Kentucky State Police -- reached out to the religious organization to help curb the bill’s passage.
At Wednesday’s event, Shemelya admitted that there is some scientific evidence that marijuana does have medicinal benefits -- but cautioned that more time is needed to fully understand the effects of legalization.
The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse has yet to give a final say on marijuana’s medical benefits. The organization has stated that research conducted thus far on the subject “is mixed.”
“Some data suggest that medical cannabis treatment may reduce the dose of opioids required for pain relief, while another NIH-funded study found that cannabis use appears to increase the risk of developing nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder. Though no single study is definitive, they cumulatively suggest that medical marijuana products may play a role in reducing the use of opioids needed to control pain but that these products don’t come without risk,” the organization states on its website.
Shemelya echoed the NIH’s position during his presentation Wednesday.
“For anyone to tell you there is no medicinal value -- they are outright lying to you,” Shemelya said before suggesting that five to ten more years of research is needed before having a clear understanding of marijuana’s effects on health and other impacts of legalization.
Republican Sen. Mike Azinger, Senator-elect Eric Tarr and Del. Tom Fast were among the state lawmakers in attendance at the event. Democratic House of Delegates members Mike Pushkin and Andrew Robinson -- who attended a portion of the event -- said they were invited only after requesting access through Stuart’s office.
Pushkin, who is an advocate for marijuana reforms and did not give a presentation Wednesday, called the event a “lecture series by a handpicked list of prohibitionists who used half truths and fear tactics to further a predetermined narrative.” He also suggested Stuart hold additional discussions that would involve supporters of legalization.
“I appreciate the invitation and the work that Mike Stuart and his staff put into this event. However, it would have been more meaningful and productive to hear people with differing viewpoints discuss the issue and attempt to reach a rational consensus,” Pushkin said. “I think the people would be better served if we could have an open discussion on the matter. I’d love to debate U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart on this issue in a public forum.”
Stuart, whose job is to prosecute and enforce laws in federal court, has been a staunch and vocal opponent of marijuana reform, including legalization for medical and recreational use. He suggested throughout the event that everyone knows where he stands on the issue.
“If marijuana is legal, it's legal. But it doesn't mean there won't be regulation and enforcement. It can be legal tomorrow. But I do know this about the marijuana lobby -- we will either run that regime if it comes into West Virginia, or it will run us. So it's important that even if it becomes legal, that we enforce regulations -- and that we make sure there's a level landscape for everybody,” Stuart said.
With a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Justice in 2017, West Virginia is slated to provide medical access to the drug on July 1, 2019. However, technical cleanups to the law failed to pass during the 2018 legislative session -- leaving the launch of the state’s medical program in question.
Stuart, along with other anti-marijuana speakers at the event, acknowledged that national trends in state legislation indicates that legalization for recreational purposes often follows passage of medical marijuana laws.
“The goal here was to try to learn from the experience in Colorado and learn from the experience that we've seen on the west coast. And if we head down this path, how can we do it better? How can we avoid the mistakes those places have done?” Stuart asked.
While Stuart said he welcomes additional discussion on the matter that would include supporters of marijuana legalization, no events are currently scheduled through his office.