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Medical Marijuana Gets West Virginia Governor's Approval

Saying he was there to show basic compassion, Gov. Jim Justice signed into law the bill that makes West Virginia the 29th state to legalize medical marijuana.

By Ay Andrea Lannom

Saying he was there to show basic compassion, Gov. Jim Justice signed into law the bill that makes West Virginia the 29th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Justice signed the bill in a Wednesday ceremony with a few legislators in attendance, including Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, who sponsored several medical marijuana bills through the years, and Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who was the lead sponsor of the bill that passed.

"With great pleasure, I'm going to sign this into law," Justice said. "I think all of us feel like we are doing something good for families out there. At the end of the day, no matter what we do, there's a name attached to it -- a family attached to it. We know that."

Senate Bill 386 does not allow smoking or packaged edible products, but a person will be permitted to obtain pills, oil or topical forms.

People would have to get a certificate from the Bureau for Public Health and an ID card to go to a dispensary and have a product filled for a 30-day supply.

As amended, the bill allows 30 dispensaries and 10 growers, creating fees for each category.

"We have done something that is goodness in my book," Justice said. "I don't want to do anything to hurt or worsen the situation but in this situation, I think the public has spoken and we have spoken. Now, let's try to help as many people as we possibly can."

It was a procedural move that catapulted the bill to the House floor. Championed by Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, a move to bypass committee reference and move the bill straight to the floor kept was adopted.

"The Senate was always receptive," Folk had said in a previous interview. "(Senate President Mitch) Carmichael sponsored a medical marijuana bill a couple of years ago. I figured we needed to get it out of the Senate to have a shot. I've been waiting for this for three years. This is the year that we finally got it out. That's why I did what I did because I knew if it went to the committee, it (would) die."

Justice said Folk was not able to make it to Wednesday's ceremony, but the governor commended him for his motion.

"It took great bravery for Mike Folk to do what he did," Justice said.

After the ceremony, Pushkin said he was surprised to be standing in the governor's reception room watching the bill being signed into law.

"Going into session, no one thought that we would be here today. The reason we are here is because it's the right thing to do," he said.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, Commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, also was in attendance Wednesday. He said he was surprised at the bill's passage as well.

"Most people were surprised," he said. "It's an understatement. However, what we have in front of us today is a law as it stands in an attempt to compassionately address a number of disorders with chronic pain at the heart of it."

There are several steps the bureau will take before the 2019 effective date. The first is reviewing current law, followed by appointing a Medical Cannabis Board.

"There is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done before that to ensure that it is done properly, vetted properly in a transparent, proper and evidence-based way," Gupta said.

The board will develop guidelines to license growers, dispensaries and processors. The board also will provide physician education and develop an electronic database to house the information, including patient ID cards.

"It's important to remember that this is not a recreational use law," Gupta said. "This is medical cannabis. There is data out there, although it is limited data, that demonstrates when it comes to chronic pain, it has shown benefits in the reduction of symptoms. Oral cannabis also has shown to reduce symptoms of MS and symptoms of spasticity."

Gupta said in his view, one of the biggest challenges is that there is not a ton of evidence, saying part of that is because of the federal ban of cannabis use.

"I believe this is going to help us because the funding in this bill allows for work to be done toward substance use problems," he said. "It allows us an opportunity to explore data, capture data and play a role in developing evidence whether or not cannabis works and what conditions it works."

Gupta said he thinks medical marijuana will help many people but said he also thinks the state should proceed with caution as it embarks on the program, especially when it comes to unintended poisonings of children.

"We have to be careful as we develop this that pregnant women and children are protected," he said.

(c)2017 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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