Time runs out on bill making changes to WV’s medical cannabis program

The clock ran out Saturday for the Legislature to implement a change to the state’s medical cannabis program, not long after the state treasurer raised doubts for the financial infrastructure behind it.

State Treasurer John Perdue wrote a letter to Gov. Jim Justice, legislative leaders and state officials March 1, stating that because of the disparity between state and federal law regarding medical cannabis, the state cannot support the program with its financial services.

“Our vendors currently do not desire to engage in accepting any deposits related to sales, fees, licenses, or taxes related to state-sanctioned medical cannabis sales,” the letter states. “Therefore, in the best interest of the State, the Treasurer’s Office is unwilling to accept the funds derived from medical cannabis at this time. Any other depositing alternative is not a viable option.”

The House passed a bill Feb. 28 that would increase the number of growers, processors and dispensaries that can be permitted under the program, among other changes, heeding recommendations of the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.

After receiving the letter, the Senate overhauled the bill with several changes to the program, including establishing a credit union as a workaround.

“The State Treasurer may designate a credit union only for the banking functions necessary for the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act,” the Senate proposal states. It contains similar language calling for another credit union to receive state funds for the program.

The bill made it to the House Clerk’s Office after the Senate passed it, but never to the House floor. While House Democrats made a series of procedural moves trying to force House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to bring it to the floor, they fell flat.

A possible source of the problem: the legislation appears to refer to both a fund (the “Medical Cannabis Program Implementation Fund”) that does not exist under code and the bill does not create, and a code section (16A-15-10) that does not exist.

After the session, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, accused the Legislature of obstructing passage of the bill, pointing to the lag time between the Senate passing it and its mention in the House.

House Communications Director Jared Hunt said while he did not know all the facts, the bill appeared flawed and there was not enough time to patch it.

Along with the banking fix, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s version of the legislation contained provisions that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana; allow dispensaries to deliver it to patients’ homes; instruct the Bureau of Public Health to promulgate a rule allowing the dispensing of smokable marijuana, which is not currently available within the program; and require the BPH to issue permits to 100 dispensaries around the state.

However, the Senate pared that down just before passing the bill. The chamber removed the first three of those four provisions and reduced the number of dispensaries in the bill down to 50.

West Virginia’s medical cannabis program is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2019.

The Senate bill passed on a 26-7 vote. Sens. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, Mike Azinger, R-Wood, Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, Sue Cline, R-Raleigh, Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, and Mark Maynard, R-Wayne opposed.

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jackson, was absent for the vote.

Debating the bill, Azinger said the bill will take away from the “fear” and “mystery” of marijuana and will encourage its use among the state’s youth. He also said of 7,000 studies, not one proves marijuana to be safe.

“We’re saying as a culture this is not a dangerous drug and what we’re doing is fine,” he said. “We know intuitively there is something to be afraid of.”

A 2014 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association that analyzed medical cannabis laws and state-level death certificate data in the United States from 1999 to 2010 in all 50 states found that medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates.

Also, as House Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, pointed out, the bill allows the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes only for those suffering from disorders such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, intractable seizures and others. It does not allow for any recreational use.

Much of Perdue’s concern stems from regulatory changes from the U.S. Department of Justice over the last decade.

In October 2009, President Barack Obama instructed U.S. attorneys not to prosecute people who distribute medical marijuana if it’s legal under state law in what came to be known as “the Cole memo.”

However, in January 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded this policy and put the emphasis back on federal law, under which marijuana is still a Schedule-I controlled substance.

Perdue’s memo mentions the policy changes but does not mention language tacked on to annual federal appropriations bills by U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., (and formerly by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.), that prohibits the use of federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana businesses operating legally under state law.

The letter says businesses could be exposed to federal prosecution under state law as is currently written.

“Simply stated, all banks are subject to federal law, whether the bank is a state-chartered bank or a national bank,” the letter states. “Because cannabis (marijuana) is an illegal drug under the Controlled Substance Act, financial institutions could potentially be violating federal law by accepting moneys derived from the cannabis industry, even if authorized by state law.”

The bill sets minimum requirements on the number of permits the Department of Health and Human Resources must issue for the program. It would require the issuance of 20 permits for growers, 20 for processors and 50 for dispensaries, a spike from current levels.

It also enables businesses to operate as any combination of the three.

Under current law, the permits come at a price: A grower and processor permit costs $50,000, and a dispensary permit costs $10,000.

SOURCE: Charleston Gazette – Mail 

Time runs out ob bill making changes to WV’s medical cannabis program

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