CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most West Virginia lawmakers understand there could be medical benefits to marijuana, but they question the best way for the state to legally regulate the usage and sale of the drug.
That's the vibe Matt Simon, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, said he receives more and more in talks with legislators on the controversial subject.
"I don't have a head count, but that's the impression that we get," Simon said. "Speaking with legislators, it seems a majority understands that if somebody has a severe case of cancer or multiple sclerosis, they should be able to use it without criminal penalties."
Simon, a Parkersburg native with a master's degree from West Virginia University, returns home this week to present information on marijuana regulations to a legislative interim committee.
On Wednesday, Karmen Hanson, health program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures, will discuss with Simon how other states have approached legalizing medical marijuana before the Joint Committee on Health.
Right now medical marijuana is legal in 20 states, but "legal" means something different in each. In New Jersey, for example, medical marijuana was legalized in January of 2010, but a heap of regulations has kept any dispensaries from providing patients with the drug, Simon said.
On the other end of the spectrum, dispensaries in California aren't regulated by the state at all, he said.
Simon believes there's a happy medium and he thinks finding it in West Virginia is certainly possible.
"I strongly believe West Virginia should pass a law like this, and should regulate it in such a way that prevents major problems from happening, but so patients have safe, legal access," Simon said.
Last legislative session the House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for a study of "the feasibility and necessity of medical marijuana." Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne and chairman of the House Health Committee, sponsored the resolution.
"The whole idea is to gather enough information to make an informed choice," Perdue said. "We haven't really done that over the last several years."
Proponents believe it can bring additional tax dollars to the state while providing comfort to patients with pain. Opponents say it's legalizing a harmful drug that will only exacerbate problems with addiction and other issues.
In the past, Perdue said the evidence was anecdotal. Simon made a presentation earlier in the year purporting the medical benefits, and Perdue thinks his presentation this week could further help lawmakers decide where they stand.
There's no question the idea is divisive and potentially politically dangerous. For the last three years, bills calling for the legalization of medical marijuana haven't made it anywhere close to passage.
The recent legalizations in the state of Washington and Colorado, along with the information about regulations from those states, excited more interest with West Virginia lawmakers, Perdue said.
Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, agrees. For two years he was the only sponsor of bills calling for the legalization of medical marijuana. It was tough to make any headway with fellow lawmakers in trying to garner more support, Manypenny said.
"Every time I brought the word 'marijuana' up, there was a such a discomfort; (lawmakers) stared at the ground, shuffled feet," Manypenny said.
"And now, people are starting to take it seriously. The science is there, and we need to recognize it. And we need to pass it for the treatment of the chronically ill patients in West Virginia that it could help."
He thinks Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a prominent physician who works for CNN, recently changing his mind and publicly supporting the legalization of medical marijuana is also making a difference.
Along with Perdue, 10 delegates co-sponsored the resolution for studying medical marijuana.
Nine are Democrats: Dave Perry of Fayette County, Jeff Eldridge of Lincoln County, Phil Diserio of Brooke County, Ryan Ferns of Ohio County, Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County, Charlene Marshall of Monongalia County, Clif Moore of McDowell County, Meshea Poore of Kanawha County and Margaret Staggers of Raleigh County.
Delegate Amanda Pasdon of Monongalia County was the only Republican to sponsor the resolution.
Passing anything can be a little more difficult during an election year. Perdue's still not sure he supports such a bill, and he didn't want to guess how many lawmakers favor the measure. He and Manypenny said they aren't sure if a medical marijuana bill can pass in 2014.
The bill isn't as politically charged as some may think though, they said. Perdue wasn't sure anyone would base a vote entirely on whether someone supports medical marijuana legalization. Manypenny, who plans to introduce the bill again this session, said it hasn't kept him from winning re-election.
Other lawmakers have seen him survive a close election after introducing the bill for two years, a big reason why he thinks more people came out to support the resolution.
"I think if we approach this properly, and create some tight regulations, it will give a lot of people a little more comfort knowing they're not going to be legalizing something that's going to bring down the wrath of the federal government on patients, doctors, and dispensaries," Manypenny said.
The joint health committee meets at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the House Government Organizations committee room at the Capitol.