WV DHHR in early stages of medical marijuana planning

AP file photo
Different varieties of marijuana buds are displayed at Kaya Shack, a medical marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon. In July 2019, medical marijuana in West Virginia will be legal, for which the state Department of Health and Human Resources is in the early stage of planning.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is “in the preliminary stage” of developing a plan for implementation of West Virginia’s medical marijuana law, according to state officials, and has devoted a section of its website to frequently asked questions and more information.

Only one agency responsible for nominating a member to the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board has publicly announced the nominee — Joe Hatton, deputy commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 386 — permitting doctors to recommend marijuana for medicinal purposes and establishing a regulatory system in West Virginia — into law on April 19. The law states that no patient or caregiver ID cards will be issued until July 2019.

Lawmakers gave the DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health oversight and tasked the bureau with creating an online source of public information.

The section of the website, found at www.dhhr.wv.gov/bph/Pages/Medical-Cannabis-Program.aspx, links to frequently asked questions for patients and caregivers, growers and processors, potential dispensary owners and physicians.

It also links to a 2013 announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice that was written in response to states’ medical marijuana laws and lists enforcement priorities for the department. The memo states that “in jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations” is less likely to threaten federal enforcement priorities. The memo also cites previous guidance, which stated “that it was likely not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement resources on seriously ill individuals, or on their individual caregivers.”

The website states that the Bureau for Public Health remains “in the early stages of the development of the program.” DHHR is currently engaged in rule-making, which means the process of agencies writing the specific plans for implementing laws the Legislature passes.

Allison Adler, spokeswoman for the DHHR, said via email that the Bureau for Public Health’s commissioner’s office “is in the preliminary stage of developing an implementation plan, including a legal interpretation of what rules will be necessary to fully implement the Act.”

“Those rules will begin with requirements for growers/processors so that those entities can come online and begin to produce products, then detailing requirements for dispensaries and physicians, followed closely by the requirements for the registration of caregivers and patients,” she wrote.

“There are many considerations such as program operation, and how applications are to be submitted by growers/processors, dispensaries, patients and caregivers, and physicians,” she added.

The law also established a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board within the Bureau for Public Health. The bill says that its members will include four physicians to be appointed by the State Medical Association; a pharmacist appointed by the Board of Pharmacy; a horticulturist appointed by the Agriculture commissioner; a person designated by the West Virginia Association of Alcoholism and Drug Counselors; and a prosecuting attorney appointed by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Institute.

The governor is tasked with appointing a pharmacologist; an attorney knowledgeable about medical cannabis laws; and a person who is a patient, a family or household member of a patient or a patient advocate. The advisory board will also include the commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health and the superintendent of the State Police or a designee.

The Department of Agriculture is the only entity, so far, that has selected its representative on the board and responded to an email with the name of that person.

Crescent Gallagher, Agriculture spokesman, said that Commissioner Kent Leonhardt selected Hatton, a certified crop adviser and certified grassland professional.

“As a lifelong farmer, I think this is a great opportunity to show what we can do in agriculture,” Hatton said, in a phone interview.

He noted that West Virginia will have to look to other states such as Colorado, since West Virginians have experience, “but not with the legal variety.” He noted that “this can’t be grown out in the middle of an open field.”

He also has unanswered questions.

“It has to be profitable,” he said. “We haven’t talked about the structure ... who’s going to own the crop? Who’s going to own the marijuana? Will it be the farmers or the pharmaceutical companies or the state of West Virginia?”

House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, whose committee made several amendments to the medical marijuana bill, has said that if the DHHR was ready sooner, the law could become effective before July 2019.

Asked about that, Adler would only say that “Under the Act, the Bureau may not issue patient and caregiver identification cards necessary to obtain medical cannabis until July 1, 2019 (passed by the Legislature.)”

It would take legislative action to change the bill.

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

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