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Legislators argue for medical marijuana

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Advocates and some doctors agree marijuana can alleviate symptoms of some medical conditions.

But the federal government doesn't, and that gives some West Virginia lawmakers pause when contemplating state legislation to legalize medical marijuana.

Explaining how states negotiate the situation played a central role in two presentations given Wednesday during a joint state Senate and House health committee meeting.

Karmen Hanson, a health policy expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Matt Simon, a lobbyist and analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, presented ways other states have handled legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.

At the moment, the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. That classification is reserved for substances that offer no medicinal benefits and have a high propensity for abuse, Simon said.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use, and President Barack Obama's administration has said it will not try to criminally prosecute people who follow the laws in that state. Still, the federal classification makes West Virginia lawmakers uneasy.

"I would like to see the feds get on board with us," said Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer.

"If the FDA were to say, 'Hey, there are some medical reasons to use this' and back us up, then I think (state legalization is) not an unreasonable thing."

Ellington, a physician, is the minority vice chairman of the House Health Committee.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairs the committee and sponsored a resolution calling for the study of medical marijuana legalization. After the hearing Wednesday he also said the federal stance, while frustrating, is a concern for some lawmakers.

That's why it's so important to learn what other states are doing and see if something similar could work for West Virginia, Perdue said.

Republican delegates Daryl Cowles of Morgan County and Kelli Sobonya of Cabell County asked about the classification. Taking it a step further, Sobonya postulated that states ignoring federal drug classifications could also open a door for states to ignore rules from the Environmental Protection Agency or aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

Federal drug experts have tried to change the classification in the past: Simon pointed to a 1988 ruling from a Drug Enforcement Agency official who favored reclassifying marijuana. The ruling was overturned, leading states to find their own solutions, Simon said.

Regulations in each of those states vary greatly, but Hanson said there are similar aspects in most states.

  • Typically, states have registries for patients, growers or caregivers - the entities that produce the marijuana - and dispensaries that sell it. Growers and dispensaries are licensed by the state, and typically fall under the jurisdiction of that state's department of health, Hanson said.
  • Most states require patients to have some sort of relationship with prescribers, in order to avoid fraudulent prescriptions, Simon said.
  • Some states also allow patients to grow their own marijuana, but set a limit on the number of plants they can have or grow at any given time.
  • Each state sits on a regulation spectrum, Simon said. California is considered to have the fewest regulations. New Jersey, where patients are still not readily able to receive marijuana several years after it was legalized, might have too many regulations, Simon said.

    An advocate and registered lobbyist, Simon believes West Virginia can find a happy medium.

    Although some states use legalization as a way to make tax revenue, Simon said the focus should be on finding a way to help patients who can't find a suitable form of treatment. There are states that earn money from legalization, but the law is revenue neutral in many states, Simon said.

    Ellington said he thought the two presentations were beneficial. He said he learned about strains of marijuana that had more of the drug's active medicinal ingredient and less of "THC," the active intoxicant in marijuana.

    Although he said he decided not to support a legalization bill during the last legislative session, Ellington thinks some patients could benefit from using marijuana.

    "Personally, I am a physician. I believe there may be some medical use," Ellington said.

    "If it's done properly, we may be able to implement something.  I don't want to see it deteriorate and see a lot of people getting high on pot and going to other drugs and things like that."

    The concept of marijuana as a gateway drug bothered other lawmakers as well. Sen. Ron Stollings, a Boone County Democrat and a physician, questioned whether there was a conclusive study that linked marijuana usage to using other drugs.

    Hanson said she did not know of a study, but Perdue said he and others believe it can be a gateway drug.

    Perdue, a retired pharmacist, said many drugs have the capacity for abuse. Weighing potential benefits needs to be part of that conversation, he argued.

    During the committee meeting Sobonya also asked about if legalizing medical marijuana led to increased arrests for impaired driving, and if there was any particular form of consumption included in any laws.

    Hanson said she had not seen any conclusive data that showed legalization of medical marijuana directly caused increased impaired driving citations. In states that have legalized marijuana, it's consumed in a variety of different ways, from smoking to inhaling vapor to eating products that include marijuana, Hanson said.

    It's going to take lawmakers asking questions and receiving information for a medical marijuana legalization bill to pass the Legislature, said Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor.

    For the last three years Manypenny has introduced a legalization bill. Although there was practically no formal support for those measures, Manypenny said recently he's noticed a change in attitudes among lawmakers.

    After introducing the measure and still winning re-election, Manypenny thinks other lawmakers see it's not political suicide to support medical marijuana. In fact, he's confident the measure has a real chance of passage in the near future.

    "I think this year we'll at least get it through a committee, if not two committees," Manypenny said.

    "I'd like to see it go to the floor for a vote. I anticipate if it doesn't, it'll be one more year, and I'm sure we can have it passed by 2015."

    Ellington thought lawmakers still had plenty of questions, but the measure is potentially moving forward. Perdue said he still needed to speak with other lawmakers to see where they stood. He could support a legalization measure, but only if it had the support of others.

    "If the citizens of the state of West Virginia seem to be headed in that direction and the Legislature is going along with them, then yes, I could be comfortable in taking up legislation like that," Perdue said. "But if it is just an exercise in futility, no, I can't justify that."

    Perdue didn't say how many other lawmakers it would take to convince him to move forward with the bill. With legislators facing an election next fall, whipping up support could be difficult during the 2014 session, Perdue has said. 

    Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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