West Virginia’s medical marijuana board plans to recommend to state lawmakers that patients who have met certain requirements be able to buy smokable forms of marijuana.
The board, which met Tuesday afternoon at the University of Charleston, also plans to recommend state lawmakers increase or remove a cap on the number of growers, processors and dispensaries in the state, and allow one company to serve two or three of those roles — meaning a grower could also be a processor, for example.
The board did not approve recommending any conditions, such as anxiety, be added to the list of medical conditions that patients must be diagnosed with before doctors can recommend medical marijuana.
West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill during the 2017 legislative session, permitting doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients and establishing a regulatory system in the state. The law also set up a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board and directs the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Public Health to oversee implementation of the law and the state’s medical marijuana system.
Some advocates for marijuana legalization criticized the law — which allows patients to begin receiving patient ID cards in July of 2019 — because it prohibits smoking marijuana and growing your own marijuana, limits use of the drug to people with certain serious medical conditions, and sets hefty fees for companies who want to become involved. They have also criticized the law because it limits the number of growers to 10, processors to 10, and dispensaries to 30.
Thursday, three subgroups presented their recommendations to the full board. Board members then voted on whether to make those recommendations to the state Legislature.
A subgroup, led by Dr. Michelle Easton, reviewed the forms of medical cannabis to permit and whether dry leaf or plant form should be permitted to be dispensed for vaporization. That group recommended allowing patients to purchase dry leaf or plant form — smokable forms of marijuana.
The law continues to say it shall be unlawful to smoke medical cannabis. And Easton’s group’s recommendation says only that patients would be able to access the plant or leaves to vape — not to combust the plant, meaning burn it.
But the subgroup recommendation would mean patients with certification from DHHR that says they are medical marijuana patients would be able to possess those smokable forms, said Brian Skinner, an attorney for DHHR, who cautioned that was his early interpretation.
“People can combust [it] themselves if they want, but that’s not what we’re advocating or recommending,” explained Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner for DHHR’s bureau for public health and state health officer.
Board members approved the recommendation. Another recommendation by that group, to reschedule marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 4, was tabled while the group looks into possible repercussions.
A subgroup charged with looking at affordable access and the number of dispensaries, growers and processors in the state, chaired by Jesse Forbes, suggested recommending lawmakers remove or increase the caps on number of companies growing, dispensing and processing the drug.
Forbes said they hoped to encourage smaller companies with less start-up money to become involved.
They also recommended allowing one company to serve two or three of those roles. Those recommendations were approved by the full board.
Another subgroup, led by Dr. Jim Felsen, was given the topic area “medical professionals and serious medical conditions.” The group did not recommend adding any conditions to the list, which currently includes:
•Positive status for human immunodeficiency virus or acquired immune deficiency syndrome
•Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
•Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
•Post-traumatic stress disorder
•Sickle cell anemia
•Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or has proved ineffective as determined as part of continuing care
•Terminal illness, meaning a medical prognosis of life expectancy of approximately one year or less if the illness runs its normal course.
Felsen said he had received numerous emails about adding anxiety, “but just throwing anxiety on their qualifies 80 percent of the population to get cannabis and I don’t think — reading the statute — that’s what the Legislature had in mind.”
The law states that one of the medical marijuana board’s duties is to recommend “whether to change, add or reduce the types of medical conditions which qualify as serious medical conditions under this act.”
His group did recommend changing the phrasing “serious medical condition” to “medical condition with possible serious manifestations.” That recommendation was approved by the board.
During public comment, Walter Huckleberry, who said he represented black men and Southern West Virginia, said he supported rescheduling, pointing to the imprisonment of black men over marijuana. Huckleberry, who grew up in McDowell County, also asked the board to come to the rural, southern part of the state, which would benefit from an economic boost.
“Our population is small but our death toll related to the opioids is very high,” he said. “Southern West Virginia can accommodate also.”
Jim Kennison, a Vietnam veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, thanked the board members for their time.
“I don’t have time and I want to apologize for a couple of shout-outs,” he said. “That was me. It was because sometimes I get a little tired with playing around with the semantics … when I was coming up here I was thinking man, I could use a little oil because my anxiety level is through the roof.”
DHHR employees said they plan to release a full list of recommendations, after staff members clean up some of the language without altering intent. Gupta said the recommendations will be presented to lawmakers, who are currently in session, within days.
The Tuesday meeting and future meetings will be live-streamed on DHHR’s Facebook page.