West Virginia has America’s highest concentration of opioid pain pills. According to a Washington Post report released last week, 853,486,418 prescription pain pills were supplied to our state from 2006 to 2012. In 2017, 833 West Virginians died from opioid overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Despite these staggering statics, the only accessible medication for pain management in a blue collar state like West Virginia are opioids.
This crisis is why in 2017, as a member of the House of Delegates, we took action. With my support, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 386, the Creating West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act. Three-fourths of the House of Delegates and 80 percent of the Senate voted for this bipartisan bill, which Gov. Jim Justice then signed.
The measure passed because the medical and scientific communities have been clear: Medical cannabis can help limit the damaging effects of opioid addiction. A 2014 study showed that medical cannabis “can lower opioid side effects, cravings, and withdrawal severity, as well as enhance the analgesic effects of opioids, thereby allowing for lower doses and less risk of overdose.” Other research has found that 80 percent of medical cannabis users reported substituting cannabis for prescribed pain-related medications.
Not only was I supportive of SB 386 but I proposed additional legislation to expand, improve and refine the program. Yet even though SB 386 went into effect on July 5, 2017, two years later the program still hasn’t started.
On March 1, 2018, 329 days after the governor signed SB 386 and 239 days after the bill went into effect, State Treasurer John Perdue sent a letter to members of the State Legislature stating “The Treasurer’s Office has serious concerns about the processing of these funds related to medical cannabis.”
No one knows why it took the Treasurer’s Office nearly a year after passage to identify issues with the legislation. We were not made aware of the need for a banking fix during deliberations. Nonetheless, after the treasurer asked for a banking fix, I worked with the Senate to amend my legislation to not only expand, improve and refine the program, but to provide that fix. And during the 2019 general session the legislature passed HB 2538.
Unfortunately, even after the banking fix, the Treasurer’s office has refused to act. Treasurer John Perdue has said that his office has “taken our time” with the program. He is certainly right about that. While prudence should guide any new effort, multi-year delays are inexcusable. The taxpayers of West Virginia pay our constitutional officers to do a job, not simply to occupy an office. With the absence of action by Perdue, the taxpayers of West Virginia are paying to keep the program afloat until funds can be processed. This should be a multiplier of motivation to act expediently. Unfortunately, patients continue to wait and taxpayers continue to pay.
Rusty Williams, a patient advocate who sits on the Office of Medical Cannabis’ advisory board, said it best: “It seems like here in West Virginia we can’t figure out how to cash a check.”
Clearly, West Virginia needs a modernized, transparent and proactive state Treasurer’s Office. We simply can’t afford these inexplicable, bureaucratic delays. The lives of our friends, families and neighbors are at stake. It’s time for a change.