WV Senate passes medical marijuana bill to House

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, sponsored Senate Bill 386, which legalizes marijuana for medical purposes in West Virginia.
CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Dog tags lie on Sen. Richard Ojeda’s desk in the Senate Chamber Wednesday. “On my desk right there, there’s 13 dog tags,” he said, gesturing. “We can’t help them. They died in combat, but we may be able to help those that see them when they close their eyes.”
ERIN BECK | Gazette-Mail
The Senate voted 28-6 to pass a bill that would legalize and regulate the use of medical marijuana in West Virginia. The bill now goes to the House of Delegates.

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill on Wednesday that would permit marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes in West Virginia.

Senate Bill 386, sponsored by Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, would create the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Commission, a group of lawyers, medical professionals, members of the public and agricultural officials who would oversee regulation of medical marijuana in the state.

Rusty Williams, of the Nitro area, immediately burst into tears when he saw the bill had passed, 28-6.

“I’ve not felt this good since the day my oncologist said that I was in remission,” he said.

Williams was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Mother’s Day in 2012. He said he used marijuana to alleviate the effects of chemotherapy. He began fighting for medical marijuana, so others could access the drug, not long after he entered remission in May of 2013.

He said he doesn’t believe he would be alive today if he hadn’t used it.

“I wish I could properly put it into words,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe it — to know that something got me through the most hopeless I ever felt in my life ... to know there’s an illegal flower that can get you through that,” his voice trailed off, before he thanked a “small, dedicated group of people” for their work on the issue.

The bill now goes to the House of Delegates for further consideration.

During a break Wednesday, Ojeda acknowledged that the bill could face more resistance there.

“I know people are saying, ‘The speaker won’t run it, the speaker won’t run it,’” he said. “You know what? It’s time. It’s time for our state to open up our eyes and our minds and realize you know if it’s a gateway drug, it’s a gateway out of opioid addiction and it’s a gateway for people to have a better life that only have a small little bit of life left.”

Jared Hunt, spokesman for the House of Delegates, has said if the bill were sent over, Speaker of the House Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, would gauge interest from the caucus and speak to other members of leadership.

Ojeda has argued the bill could help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder among West Virginia veterans.

“On my desk right there, there’s 13 dog tags,” he said, gesturing. “We can’t help them. They died in combat, but we may be able to help those that see them when they close their eyes.”

“We have thousands of veterans from this state that have seen things I pray you or your children never have to see,” he added, during a floor speech in support of the bill. “I’ve got a dog tag here and I can remember telling his wife her husband is not coming home to see the birth of her first son because she was eight months pregnant when he was killed [overseas].”

The West Virginia Medical Cannabis Commission would “develop policies, procedures, guidelines, and regulations to implement programs to make medical cannabis available to qualifying patients in a safe and effective manner” and develop identification cards for qualifying patients and caregivers, according to the bill.

The bill also sets up a West Virginia Medical Cannabis Revenue Fund. It would consist of any money appropriated by the Legislature, donations and gifts, and any fees set by the commission. Ten percent of funds would go to safe cannabis use and substance abuse and alcohol recovery programs.

The bill caps the number of growers at 15, but that number could be changed later based on demand. It would cap the number of dispensaries at 60, but that number could also be changed later.

Qualifying medical conditions in the bill include: “chronic or debilitating diseases or medical conditions that result in a patient being admitted into hospice or receiving palliative care, and chronic or debilitating diseases or medical conditions or the treatment of chronic or debilitating diseases or medical conditions that produce: cachexia, anorexia, or wasting syndrome; severe or chronic pain that does not find effective relief through standard pain medication; severe nausea; seizures; severe or persistent muscle spasms; refractory generalized anxiety disorder” and post-traumatic stress disorder. It also gives the commission permission to approve other conditions.

The commission would also register a “public criminal justice agency” as the primary testing laboratory to test cannabis and products containing cannabis to be sold in the state. Background checks would be required for “basically anyone involved in the system,” Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan and the Senate Judiciary chairman, said during floor discussion Wednesday.

The bill prohibits use of marijuana resulting in “negligence or professional malpractice,” operating motor vehicles under the influence of marijuana, and smoking in public, in a motor vehicle, or on a landlord’s property or at an apartment complex that does not permit marijuana.

An amendment, first suggested by Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, that would allow people with prescriptions to grow two plants of their own also remains in the bill.

During discussion Wednesday evening, Trump offered an amendment stating that anyone who knowingly distributes, possesses with intent to distribute, or manufactures cannabis that has been diverted from a patient, dispensary or caregiver is guilty of a felony, punishable by one to five years and/or a fine of up to $10,000. That amendment was adopted.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, also moved to amend the bill so that drug screening tests no longer include a report on the level of THC. That amendment failed.

Stollings, a physician, also urged support.

“I have patients that won’t even come to me now because they’re breaking the law and using marijuana,” he said.

Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, spoke about a young man, a family friend, who has multiple seizures per day. He added that “I believe if we take that which God created and utilize it for the useful benefit of mankind, that’s what we’re charged to do.”

Senators voting against the bill included Mike Azinger, R-Wood; Donna Boley, R-Pleasants; Mike Maroney, R-Marshall; Dave Sypolt, R-Preston; Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; and Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha.

Takubo said he couldn’t vote for the bill as a pulmonary physician. He also said he has heard from doctors who say “if you’re going to legalize it, don’t put us in the middle of it.”

All other senators voted for it.

Senators passed the bill at the conclusion of “crossover day” at the Legislature. Crossover day is the last day to consider bills on third reading in their house of origin.

Also Wednesday, senators approved a resolution, which was sent to the full Senate from the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging Congress to pass a law to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I drug to an alternative drug schedule and to authorize state governments to regulate marijuana at their own discretion.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have “comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs.” The organization defines those programs as those that include protection from criminal penalties for using marijuana for a medical purpose; include access through home cultivation, dispensaries or another system; allow access to a variety of strains; and allow either smoking or vaporization of some kind of marijuana products, plant material or extract.

According to a January 2017 report by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, there is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis is effective for the treatment of chronic pain in adults, and substantial evidence of an association between cannabis smoking and worse respiratory symptoms, among other findings. Authors noted marijuana’s Schedule I status makes it difficult to conduct conclusive research.

Reach Erin Beck at 304-348-5163, erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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