A petition for the West Virginia Legislature to call itself into special session to fix the state’s medical marijuana bill failed during May legislative interim meetings, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t reconsider the issue before next year’s regular session.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he has spoken with Gov. Jim Justice and House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, about how to best work out banking problems with the medical marijuana program.
Armstead said he hopes a solution can be found and lawmakers can meet before next year’s session to put the program back on track.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill allowing for the medical use of marijuana beginning in 2019, after the state had time to set up rules and regulations and create an application process for growers, processors and dispensers.
But state Treasurer John Perdue said in March that his office would not be able to handle financial transactions — such as application fees — because of a conflict between state and federal law regarding marijuana.
The state Senate tried to amend a possible solution to the financing problem into a bill specifying the number of marijuana growers, processors and dispensers during the 2018 legislative session, but the amendment was not taken up by the House of Delegates.
Dr. Raul Gupta, the state’s chief health official, said the medical marijuana program is at a standstill until a banking component can be worked out. He said Monday that all rules and regulations for beginning the program are in place.
“We’re just waiting for the financing part,” he said.
Justice called a special legislative session during May interim meetings from Sunday through Tuesday, but medical marijuana was not on the agenda.
The Legislature can call itself into special session with a 60 percent vote in each chamber, but Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, did not get enough signatures in the House for lawmakers to call themselves back.
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, was able to get more than 60 percent of senators to agree to bring themselves back.
Pushkin has said the Legislature needs to pass legislation to fix the medical marijuana bill, but Armstead said Tuesday that’s easier said than done.
“The problem is, what does fixing it mean?” Armstead said.
He said the proposals to fix the banking problem so far still likely run afoul of federal law.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. And U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana.
Armstead said he has spoken with U.S. District Attorney Mike Stuart about the medical marijuana bill, and Stuart has serious concerns about the legality of the program.
Perdue has suggested the state set up its own bank to handle medical marijuana application fees and other transactions, or that the state use a third-party vendor to handle transactions.
Armstead said he does not think the state can override federal law. And a third-party vendor would still have to use the mail and the internet to conduct business, both of which are under federal jurisdiction, he said.
Nevertheless, Armstead said he is open to finding a workable solution to the financial problem.
“I know people want to rattle the saber and say we need to do something right now,” he said. “But the solutions I’ve seen so far won’t work.”
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, signed the petition for lawmakers to call themselves back into session, but he said he wants more information first.
“I think we should sit down before that and figure out what the plan is,” he said.
Marijuana is legal in some form or another in about 30 states. While those states have set up systems to handle banking transactions connected with marijuana, Armstead said those arrangements were made under an Obama-era agreement that the federal government would not prosecute states that legalized marijuana.
That agreement was rescinded shortly after Sessions became attorney general.