After last year’s elections, West Virginia became one of a minority of states without a comprehensive medical marijuana law on the books. On Friday, police debated with advocates for marijuana legislation about the appropriate next step for the state as part of the annual Legislative Lookahead held at the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Four states approved recreational marijuana in 2016. Four states approved medical marijuana. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states and the District of Columbia now have comprehensive medical marijuana laws, and eight states and D.C. have now legalized small amounts for adult recreational use.
A bill to decriminalize marijuana never made it out of committee last year. Efforts to allow for medical marijuana have also consistently failed.
Speakers during the panel include John “Ed” Shemelya, national coordinator of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s National Marijuana Initiative and a 30-year veteran of law enforcement; Delegate Mike Pushkin, sponsor of the decriminalization bill; Danny Bragg, of pro-marijuana group West Virginia Green is the New Black and a Marshall University graduate student; Lt. Eric Johnson, Charleston Police Department investigative services bureau chief; and Jim Wilson, executive director of The Gatehouse, a residential treatment program in Elkins.
Shemelya, who spent 30 years with the Kentucky State Police, and Johnson both expressed concern for the message looser marijuana laws would send to children.
Shemelya pointed to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
“If you look at that survey, there’s a clear line between the medical states and the non-medical states in regard to teen usage,” he said.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy works with Rocky Mountain HIDTA, which relied on that survey and found that youth in medical/recreational states were more likely to use marijuana in the past month, and that use among youth ages 12 to 17 increased by 20 percent after legalization in Colorado. However, as Forbes magazine noted, that 20 percent figure is based on an increase from 10.5 percent to 12.6 percent, an increase that was not statistically significant.
“Another crucial point that RMHIDTA obscures is that the rate of marijuana use among Colorado teenagers was high (compared to other states) and rising well before legalization,” Forbes notes.
Johnson also worried about the message legalization would send children. “Why tell our children drugs are bad and then legalize marijuana in any form?” he said.
He also expressed concern that regulation doesn’t work, and noted that the current drinking age is 21.
“How’s that working out for us?” he said.
Opponents also mentioned edibles — cannabis-infused foods — and whether children are attracted to them.
Bragg, meanwhile, noted that regulation could assuage some concerns.
“I assure you the drug dealer down the street is not labeling his baggies with the amount of THC,” Bragg said.
Johnson also mentioned the controversial “gateway drug” concept.
“Every single person except for one young lady told me they started with marijuana,” he said.
While research has suggested that drug users typically don’t start with harder drugs, it can’t show that marijuana use causes the use of harder drugs. It can only show that it correlates with it, unless researcher directed certain study participants to use marijuana and then followed them long-term.
“I think it’s safe to say a lot of people have tried it and have not moved on to harder drugs,” Pushkin said.
According to SAMHSA, about 30 percent of West Virginia ages 18-25 report using marijuana in the previous year.
Wilson works with a drug court and has been in recovery since 1988.
“It’s not the drug that determines whether someone is an addict or not,” he noted. “The chances of me getting addicted to it are pretty high — no pun intended.”
Shemelya mentioned a 2014 study that found medical cannabis laws were associated with a lower rate of overdose mortality. The CDC reported that West Virginia had the highest overdose rate in the country in 2015.
He said that since the study’s conclusion in 2010, those states with medical cannabis laws have seen a rise in overdoses.
“Ask how that worked out,” he said. “That argument really doesn’t hold water.”
However, the researchers noted that overdose rates were even increasing during the study. The key phrase is that the rates of overdoses were “lower than expected,” when compared to states without medical cannabis laws.
Pushkin said he received numerous calls and messages from people who benefit from medical cannabis after he sponsored legislation.
“We’re not seeing high-priced marijuana lobbyists at the Capitol,” Pushkin added, adding that marijuana is a multibillion industry and the state is seeing no revenue from it.
The state is also facing a budget crisis.
Pushkin, who sponsored the decriminalization bill last year, called the revenue “a tax that people would choose to pay.”
“I can tell you that Colorado didn’t have a special session to deal with budget issues,” Pushkin said.
Bragg mentioned 25,000 jobs in the industry in Colorado. He was referring to a September 2015 report that said Colorado had 25,311 people “licensed to work” in the industry, so the number doesn’t reflect full-time jobs.
He also said that 532,000 ounces of marijuana are grown in the state each year. He was referring to a West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy report from August of 2016. Using the an estimate, based on the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, that 92,000 people used marijuana in West Virginia in the previous month, and the assumption that marijuana use is underreported by about 22 percent in surveys, a researcher estimated that 532,044 ounces are consumed per year and that the marijuana industry is in an estimated $190 million industry in West Virginia.
‘Currently we don’t have an industry,” Bragg said. “A legalized cannabis industry is industry.”