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A Look Inside West Virginia’s Cannabis Debate

With a medical marijuana program to implement and an adult-use legalization bill to consider, cannabis is a hot topic in the West Virginia legislature this year.

Although the state’s medical marijuana program was signed into law by then-Gov. Jim Justice in April 2017, it is uncertain if it will be implemented and functional by its July 1 start date.

“The medical program has been completely on hold,” Matt Simon, legislative analyst and New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) told Cannabis Business Times. This, he said, is largely due to Mike Stuart, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who took office in January 2018 and has held an anti-cannabis stance.

“He’s really been publicly hostile, and it’s created a climate of fear that financial institutions are particularly afraid in West Virginia to be involved [in],” Simon said.

Since financial institutions informed the state treasurer’s office last year that they will not process the funds associated with the medical marijuana program, lawmakers introduced House Bill 2538 to allow the state to bid out banking contracts to institutions to handle the funds. Before the House Banking and Insurance Committee passed an edited version of the legislation at the end of January, lawmakers amended the language to protect institutions from potential legal action taken by Stuart, according to a Charleston Gazette-Mail report.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about how to fix the bill in such a way that would protect both state employees and, to the extent possible, financial institutions, and make it so the bills that passed two years ago [that legalized medical marijuana] can be finally enacted,” Simon said.

Delegate Isaac Sponaugle (D-Pendleton) put forth an amendment to the legislation which states that West Virginia will legally protect its employees against any “claims, charges, liabilities or expenses” that may arise, the Charleston Gazette-Mail said.

The House of Delegates passed the banking bill Feb. 15, and the legislation now goes to the Senate, where Simon said it is expected to pass, as well.

“The previous House Speaker [Tim Armstead] was an anti-cannabis zealot who prevented any real discussion of this, and he left office at the end of last year,” Simon said. “The new leadership is more open to actually implementing the law that was passed.”

Other legislation this session is aimed at allowing the state’s medical cannabis businesses to be vertically integrated, as well as raising the number of growers, distributors and processors permitted in the program. Another bill would allow more physicians to recommend medical cannabis, according to a Charleston Gazette-Mail report. The House Health and Human Resources Committee passed these bills at the end of February.

An adult-use legalization bill has also been introduced this session in the form of House Bill 2331, although Simon said the legislation likely will not garner enough support to pass.

The bill would decriminalize marijuana in the state and allow counties to authorize its production and sale. Cannabis would be legal for adults 21 and older, and counties would be able to levy a 5-percent sales tax.

The focus this legislative session, however, is the state’s medical marijuana law, Simon said.

“We have the medical marijuana law that’s supposed to be helping patients beginning this summer, and there’s no chance that’s going to happen on time, sadly,” he said. “Really, all the emphasis is on getting that broken law fixed and getting it implemented."

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