House OKs banking fix for medical marijuana

CHARLESTON — With wide bipartisan support, a bill that will help the state’s new medical marijuana program get off the ground is on its way to the West Virginia Senate.

The House of Delegates Friday passed House Bill 2538, providing banking services for medical cannabis, with 89 members voting yes. The bill is expected to also have broad support in the Senate.

“I’m very happy that it passed,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, a long-time proponent of medical marijuana legislation. “I hope the Senate takes it up and passes it as well.”

“I think it’s a necessary step forward for implementing our program completely,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, who also co-sponsored the bill. “Those in West Virginia who are suffering — our cancer patients, our military veterans who have PTSD — have long been yearning for another solution instead of the current one we have, which is a big pharma solution.”

HB 2538 would allow banking institutions to provide competitive bids to the state treasurer’s office to provide services for the state’s medical marijuana program. The selected banking institution would manage the Medical Cannabis Program Fund, where the treasurer’s office would deposit application fees, penalties and taxes collected from the program.

“Currently, none of our financial institutions are allowed or are willing to move forward with collecting deposits as it relates to serving medical cannabis,” said House Banking and Insurance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, when explaining the bill in the House on Friday. “It adds a new section of code specifically to deal with the medical cannabis banking issue.”

The bill opens up the possible financial institutions to more than just banks. It also allows national banking associations, bank and trust companies, savings and loan associations, building and loan associations, mutual savings banks or credit union or savings banks to bid to manage these financial services.

“The bill also attempts to provide some protections to the treasurer and other state officers who are providing these services,” Nelson said.

The Medical Cannabis Act was signed into law two years ago and is supposed to go into effect July 1. The act legalizes marijuana for medical use in West Virginia as managed by the Office of Medical Cannabis and the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.

The state treasurer started raising red flags over a year ago over the ability to deposit monies generated by the act. Federal laws make it illegal for banks to handle deposits generated by illegal drug activity. Marijuana is a schedule I drug, a category shared with cocaine and heroin.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey released an advisory opinion in January on the legalities of the Medical Cannabis Act. He advised caution due to federal law, but the state had some legal cover to move forward with implementing the act. Congress has provided no funding to the Department of Justice for shutting down a state medical marijuana program.

“Hopefully, if this gets up and running, we can start taking the applications from those who wish to be growers, processors, or act as dispensaries, and we can get this program up and running for the people who need it,” Pushkin said.