WV governor signs medical marijuana into law

JAKE ZUCKERMAN | Gazette-Mail
Gov. Jim Justice hands a signed copy of the bill establishing a medical marijuana program in West Virginia to Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, during a bill-signing ceremony at the Capitol on Wednesday. Other legislators there included the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan (seated at left), and Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha (center right).

Gov. Jim Justice signed a comprehensive medical marijuana bill into law Wednesday, wrapping up what might have been the legislative underdog story of the session.

Justice signed Senate Bill 386, which will put a medical cannabis commission into place to begin forming the regulatory infrastructure for the Bureau of Public Health to begin issuing marijuana patient ID cards on July 1, 2019.

This action makes West Virginia the 29th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Surrounded by Democratic legislators who helped push the bill through, Justice said the law will help those who are suffering obtain access to a treatment approved by the medical community.

“Our doctors are telling us, this is a pathway to help those people [who are suffering],” Justice said. “How could you turn your back on that? How could you turn your back on a loved one who is really suffering? To have a vehicle to be able to help, and to turn our back on it and say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ To me, that’s not listening to the wise, and it’s not being charitable and caring, like we ought to be.”

The new law will allow patients suffering from 16 conditions to apply for a card with permission from their doctor, who must be approved to recommend marijuana by the Board of Public Health. Acceptable conditions include terminal illnesses, cancer, HIV or AIDS and Parkinson’s disease.

The law does not allow patients to grow or smoke marijuana. Only a licensed dispensary can issue marijuana in the form of pills, oils, topicals (gels, creams, ointments), tincture, liquid, dermal patch or non-whole plant forms for administration through a vaporizer or nebulizer.

Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who sponsored the legislation and served as its point man, said he thinks the bill will help ease suffering of fellow veterans who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and simultaneously cut into the state’s opioid crisis, by taking money out of illegal drug dealers’ pockets.

Sporting a cannabis leaf-shaped pin on the breast of his jacket, Nitro resident Rusty Williams watched Justice sign the bill. Williams survived a late-stage diagnosis of testicular cancer. He said his doctors prescribed him aggressive doses of chemotherapy to combat the cancer, and he used illegally purchased marijuana to help him handle the treatments.

“When I would leave chemotherapy, the nausea would be so bad it was hard to focus,” he said. “Within 30 seconds of that first hit, all of that would right itself and I was able to eat, I was able to hold down food, I was able to sleep without medications. Basically, cannabis allowed me to get through aggressive chemotherapy without a single pharmaceutical. I didn’t take a single pain pill, nausea pill, anything, I just used cannabis for the side effects, and it worked. It got me through.”

After his experience, Williams became an amateur lobbyist, telling his story to legislators, getting citizens engaged through social media and anything else he did to get the bill through.

While he, too, thinks the bill could be improved (specifically, he cited the bill not allowing patients to grow their own or smoke marijuana), he was thrilled to see it make it through all the way to becoming law.

“It’s not a perfect bill. There are things that I would have liked to have seen in there, but it’s easier to amend a piece of existing legislation than it is to introduce something brand new,” he said. “We have a foundation we can build on, so I couldn’t be happier.”

Another advocate, Jesse Johnson, executive director of NORML’s West Virginia chapter, said the bill is a sure sign of progress for marijuana in the state. NORML is a national group that aims to reform marijuana laws, according to its website.

“It’s a giant step forward for West Virginia, for patient access, for compassion and for people who are suffering, particularly our veterans, and that’s one of the things that’s been a real driver through the past four years,” he said.

Although he’s excited by the bill’s passage, he said there is still work to be done on it. For one, he said, although a provision of the bill calls to add a psychiatrist to the cannabis commission, it does not include certain psychological disorders on the list of qualifying patients, including depression and anxiety.

“There’s some cleaning up to do, but it’s a historic first step for West Virginia,” he said.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said that, although some might be frustrated by the gap between the bill’s passage versus its 2019 full activation date, it will be a good thing for the state to not botch such a promising, although complex, initiative.

He said other states have tried to shoot the moon and get things rolling prematurely, and it only served to their detriment.

Woelfel also pointed out that the Legislature can revisit the bill in any session down the road and add to it, as needed.

Another newfound lobbyist, Keith McMillion, pointed out that the untold story of the medical marijuana saga is the small cohort of unpaid, untrained lobbyists who came together to get a bill they believed in, that most thought never had a chance, through the Legislature.

“That’s the real story here, is the group of unpaid people who pushed this thing through,” he said.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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