WV Senate accepts stricter medical marijuana bill

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After making minor technical changes to a bill that would permit doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients and establish a regulatory system in West Virginia, the state Senate accepted the House of Delegates’ version of the medical marijuana bill Wednesday afternoon.

Last week, the Senate passed a version of the medical marijuana bill that would have set up a West Virginia Cannabis Commission to oversee regulation. The most outspoken proponents of medical marijuana legalization favored that version.

But when given the Senate bill, the House of Delegates bypassed the committee process and passed a vastly different version — one that banned smoking medicinal marijuana, prohibited patients from growing their own plants and set hefty fees for growers, dispensaries and processors. Instead of an independent commission, it gives oversight to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Public Health.

Some proponents had warned that the Senate might not accept the new version of the bill, but state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, said Tuesday that the Senate would most likely concur.

Wednesday afternoon, the Senate approved the bill with technical amendments, including a correction to the title, and passed the bill in a 28-6 vote. Senators voting against were Mike Azinger, R-Wood; Donna Boley, R-Pleasants; Mike Hall, R-Putnam; Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.

If the House approves the changes, the bill would then need to be signed by the governor.

After the floor session, the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, said he hopes the legislation can be amended next year so low-income people can grow their own plants.

Still, Ojeda said, the bill was “way better than nothing.”

“It’s not devastating — not bad at all,” he said. “It’s still a good bill.”

The nearly 60-page bill states that the Bureau for Public Health would regulate medical cannabis in the state; review physician applications; issue permits to growers, dispensaries and processors; and maintain an electronic database to include “activities and information relating to medical cannabis organizations certifications and identification cards issued, practitioner registration and electronic tracking of all medical cannabis.”

It would also maintain a directory of patients and caregivers to whom it has issued ID cards, develop a four-hour training course for health care providers, establish a medical research program and develop enforcement procedures — including inspections of growers, processors and dispensaries — and have the ability to cap prices.

According to the bill, medical cannabis may be dispensed only by pill, oil, topical forms, vaporization or nebulization, tincture, liquid or dermal patch. It also lists qualifying health conditions classified as “serious.”

Counties would be able to vote to ban medical cannabis organizations.

An amendment from House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, originally said the bureau could not issue permits to more than five growers, five processors and 15 dispensaries. An amendment passed late Monday doubled those numbers.

In a statement after the vote, Joseph Cohen, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said that “our leaders could not ignore the historic groundswell of public support” and that “West Virginia will be providing relief to many who are in pain.”

“While this new law isn’t perfect, it is so much better than the current outright prohibition of marijuana,” he said. “We hope this is a sign that the state is ready to turn the corner on how it views addiction and that we are now ready to end the absurd war on drugs in West Virginia.”

Staff writer Jake Zuckerman contributed to this report.

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

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