WV delegate's first speech, on medical marijuana, hits home

Bill Flanigan, R-Mon.

Days after giving his first speech on the West Virginia House of Delegates floor — about his experience with medical marijuana — Delegate Bill Flanigan's palms are still sweaty when he talks about it.

The speech wasn't easy for Flanigan, the newest member of the House of Delegates, and it's still uncomfortable for him to talk about his experience. Even though medical marijuana provided him numerous benefits while he was going through chemotherapy, it's difficult to shake the feeling that he did something wrong. After all, marijuana is still illegal in West Virginia.

Then, he gets frustrated with himself for not being able to shake the feeling.

“It was tough,” the Monongalia County Republican said, “and it shouldn't have been tough.”

He recognizes, though, that those perceptions about marijuana need to change.

“Ultimately, I don't feel like I should feel like a degenerate criminal for using a medicine that gave me so many benefits,” he said.

On the House of Delegates floor this week, Flanigan was visibly frustrated as he spoke against a bill (HB 4576) that would have lengthened prison terms for people bringing drugs into the state. For marijuana, it would have raised the highest prison sentence from five years to 15 years.

To Flanigan, that meant lawmakers wanted to increase penalties for transporting a drug that had helped him during the most agonizing time of his life.

“Would chocolate chip cookies with medical marijuana in it under this bill if it was brought to somebody say, uh, going through chemotherapy, would that have them arrested and spend five to, what was it, 15 years in prison?” he asked Delegate Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, a bill sponsor.

“I hate to answer a question with another question, but did somebody transport that over the state line?” Weld asked.

“It did come across state lines,” Flanigan said. “Yes sir.”

“Then, yes, it would,” Weld said.

Hands shaking as he held the microphone, Flanigan began to tell his story. West Virginia Public Broadcasting later posted a video of his speech.

“I can fully appreciate and understand why we want to stop people from bringing heroin and cocaine and drugs that can kill you in one shot into our state,” he said. “Why we needed to include a drug that is clearly being used for medical use in this bill and cost somebody five to 15 years of their life is beyond me.”

First, he told them about his grandfather, a former law enforcement officer who refused to try medical marijuana when he battled cancer because it was illegal.

Then he told them about his mother-in-law, who benefited from the use of medical marijuana at a hospital in New York 20 years ago.

Then, he told them about himself.

“Has anybody else in here been through chemotherapy?” he asked, glancing around the room. “I've still got the ridges on my fingernails.”

His voice cracked, “When I came here, I hadn't had my hair grow back yet.”

He took a long pause, then began again.

“This is something that affects your loved ones, and if it hasn't yet, it might,” he said. “This is something that, God forbid, they ever have to go through it, you're going to want any medical opportunity to provide them with this compassion and care.”

Flanigan said he was prescribed 150 pain pills when he began chemotherapy, and four anti-nausea medications. Then, a “very dear loved one” brought him medical marijuana-infused chocolate chip cookies.

Flanigan recalled the first day he used the medical marijuana. He sat down for dinner with his family for the first time since he had started chemotherapy, and his wife looked at him and told him he looked much better.

“It was like my eyes had uncrossed,” he said. “The stress lines in my forehead had relaxed. That was the first night I was able to actually eat food.

“I finished up my chemo,” he said. “I had gained 18 pounds. I hadn't withered away. I had 142 out of 150 pain pills left, and all four bottles of anti-nausea medication.”

After Flanigan spoke, Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, made a motion to table the bill. Fifty-nine delegates, including two bill sponsors, agreed to table the bill, and 40 opposed the motion.

Flanigan's speech had worked.

He told a reporter later that he had never given a speech on the House floor before.

“I don't want to be a poster child for anything,” he said.

He said he hadn't planned to speak that day, but he said he felt he had to stand up.

“Hopefully, this could be something that could help a lot of people,” he said.

Since his speech, he said he has heard from others who told him they had benefited from medical marijuana, as well.

“It was nice that somebody was able to say something that made them feel like they didn't have to be ashamed,” he said.

Flanigan was appointed to his seat by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin two days after the session started, after former delegate Amanda Pasdon resigned. He isn't running again, because his cancer is now moving through his lymph nodes, so he wants to spend more time with his family.

“You might just call it a battle that I'm still fighting,” he said.

He said he believes that in the short time that he does have in the Legislature, the speech was probably the most important thing he did.

“I'm not going to be here next session,” he said, “but maybe some of the people who were there that day will be there next session, and they can have a different outlook on it.”

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

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