Stats from states that have legalized medical marijuana suggest legal weed could be a big help to West Virginia’s strained Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Striking teachers recently demanded better funding for their health insurance. And by one estimate, a working medical marijuana program could save PEIA $18 million to $30 million a year in pharmaceutical costs.
Rusty Williams is the patient advocate on the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. He said a survey of states that have legalized medical marijuana showed a sharp drop in Medicaid drug spending.
“They’re seeing a collective annual savings of $156 billion,” Williams said. “People are opting to pay out-of-pocket for cannabis rather than have their insurance pay for pharmaceuticals.”
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and is still regarded as a dangerous drug by many in state politics.
Advocates say PEIA needs at least $50 million a year. Gov. Jim Justice is expected to put forward a PEIA proposal any day.
According to advocates, decriminalization also would boost the economy and state revenues. On a human level, they point to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finding states with legal medical cannabis saw an average 25 percent reduction in opiate overdoses.
Williams said there are patients in desperate need of relief.
“I hear from people all the time – parents with kids with epilepsy, senior citizens who would love to be getting off of some of these pharmaceutical pain-management drugs,” he said. “We have patients in the state of West Virginia that will be dead before this is implemented.”
Banking rules are actually the bottleneck. To get a medical marijuana program under way, West Virginia would have to find a bank or credit union willing to work with marijuana businesses. But the U.S. Department of Justice has threatened any bank that does so with money-laundering charges.
Supporters call that an empty threat, saying Congress has passed protections against such actions.
More information on the state’s medical cannabis program is available at medcanWV.org.