Patients with qualifying conditions likely won’t be able to purchase medical marijuana in West Virginia until at least October 2021, according to government officials.
The West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act passed in 2017. The law allows patients to register with the program July 1 of this year.
Jason Frame, executive director of the Office of Medical Cannabis, said Tuesday that he estimates it will be two to three years after the state implements a banking fix to the program before patients will actually be able to procure medical cannabis, “if all goes smoothly.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice said he signed into law a bill that will allow state Treasurer John Perdue to bid out banking contracts for medical marijuana to different types of banking institutions, including credit unions, given that his vendors announced their unwillingness to participate in the program.
“Without a process to accept and disburse funds related to applications for permits and fees associated with the implementation of the Medical Cannabis Act and without funding for the program, the OMC has not been able to proceed along the original timelines previously established,” Frame said. “Once these issues are resolved, new time lines will be established for the implementation of the program.”
On Monday, Gina Joynes, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said that, even with passage of the bill, implementation of a new financial system is a ways out.
“We’re hoping to have the [requests for proposals] issued around 30 days after the governor signs the legislation. It would take probably four to five months after that to have our piece implemented,” she said. “That’s a pretty robust goal for us, but we’re really trying to make this a main priority.”
Among other qualifying conditions for medical marijuana is one for people with terminal illnesses, a term defined as a person likely having less than one year to live.
Over the past several legislative sessions, Rusty Williams, himself a cancer survivor, has worked as an unpaid advocate at the Capitol for people seeking medical marijuana.
He expressed frustration with the slow pace of the program.
“I’ve had patients reach out to me since this law was passed that are dead. They didn’t live long enough to get access to the medicine. That really bothers me,” he said. “They’re going to die having never been able to use this legal substance that could have given them some relief. That’s the whole problem I’ve had with the whole thing.”
There’s a long way to go before patients with a qualifying condition can ever walk into a dispensary and purchase medical cannabis.
Once the banking fix is implemented, the Office of Medical Cannabis will need to release permit applications for growers, processors and dispensers. Businesses will need to apply for those permits, which come with heavy up-front costs, and the state will need to select a winner.
With the permits in hand, those businesses will need to either build up or convert existing facilities into growing and processing hubs, which are technical in nature, can require expensive and heavy machinery, and will exist in a highly regulated environment.
“This isn’t something you can just learn how to do over the weekend,” said Michael Haid, a lobbyist who represented a group of investors seeking to obtain a permit.
He said he would estimate a facility that’s permitted to grow, process and dispense marijuana — which is illegal under current law but could be made legal with another bill pending the governor’s signature — would cost between $3 million and $5 million.
“This isn’t dirt and seeds,” he said. “This is machinery, million-dollar processing machines, and bringing in an entirely new industry in West Virginia that doesn’t exist.”
Frame had similar thoughts.
“In most states, it has taken several years [often three to five] to get programs up and running,” he said via email. “It requires program staffing and development, rules implementation, industry build out [building licensed, in-state growing facilities, processing facilities, dispensaries, laboratories, etc.], registration of certifying providers, registration of patients, etc. Advance work undertaken by [the] DHHR should somewhat shorten this time in WV.”
The Department of Health and Human Resourses did not respond to an interview request with Frame, and would have him take only written questions.
The medical cannabis program has faced other headwinds. For one, Frame is the only employee at the Office of Medical Cannabis.
Also, the sponsor of the 2017 enabling legislation, Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, resigned in the midst of the 2019 legislative session to run for president of the United States. He has since withdrawn from that race.
The founding chairman of the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the former West Virginia health officer, resigned in September.
The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board has not met since February 2018.
Problems aside, Justice expressed optimism in his signing announcement.
“I always have, and I always will fully support medical cannabis for our people who are in so much pain that their physicians deem it absolutely necessary,” he said.
Williams had a different take.
“You hear people talking, there’s always the conspiracy that this thing was set up to fail from Jump Street,” Williams said. “Part of me believes that it was. I don’t know how to get the ball rolling or who we need to be lobbying or who we need to be talking to, but the pace things are moving now is frustrating, to say the least.”
Also among the nearly 100 bills Gov. Jim Justice signed into law Tuesday, as a midnight Wednesday deadline to act on bills passed in the 2019 regular session nears, were bills to:
- Create the Family Planning Access Act, setting a procedure for pharmacists to dispense contraceptive pills without a prescription from a physician (House Bill 2583).
- Give the Capitol Building Commission greater authority to oversee substantial physical changes to the buildings and grounds of the Capitol Complex, including expanding its authority to review plans to modify private offices and to require state agencies and office-holders to obtain approval from the commission before contracts may be awarded (House Bill 3141).
The bill is a response to reports that Supreme Court justices spent lavishly to renovate private offices in the Capitol.