Marijuana panel looks at logistics

CHARLESTON — In a discussion delving into health questions and legal quandaries, West Virginia’s plans to implement medical marijuana supplied the first panel discussion topic of the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead Friday at the Culture Center in Charleston.

As panelists discussed marijuana, they contemplated the logistics of crafting a functional financial system by July and explored how — and if — marijuana could help patients suffering from various medical conditions. In April 2017, Gov. Jim Justice signed into a law a plan that allows the use of medical cannabis under certain parameters and that sets July 1 as the date on which patient and caregiver identification cards may be issued.

The use of medical marijuana, said Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, “has the support of the vast majority of West Virginians.” Pushkin noted repeatedly that marijuana is a non-lethal substance, unlike alcohol, and he suggested that it can provide doctors with additional options for treating pain.

Pushkin was on the panel along with James H. Berry, D.O., associate professor and medical director of the Chestnut Ridge Center and of the Acute Dual Diagnosis Program at West Virginia University; Diana Stout, general counsel for the West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office; and W. Jesse Forbes, Esq., member of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board under the Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Public Health.

Mary Heath, executive editor of The Journal, served as moderator.

Stout discussed the banking problem that’s created a statewide concern since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a 2013 memo during the Obama Administration that said the U.S. Department of Justice would not enforce federal laws prohibiting marijuana in states where some type of marijuana use had been legalized.

“We have banks that we normally deal with … who basically told us that they cannot touch this money,” Stout said.

One possible solution, she said, lies with credit unions.

“We’re told that there are credit unions in other states as well as in West Virginia willing to process these dollars,” she said.

Both Pushkin and Forbes noted the federal Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment designed to protect states using medical marijuana by making it illegal to use federal money to prosecute in such cases. In an interview after the session, Forbes noted some banks may still be concerned that the amendment is not immune to revocation.

Panelists also debated robustly the potential health benefits of marijuana. Berry, citing his work with mental illness and addiction, noted the complexity of the marijuana plant and cited a need for more research to determine its effects.

“There really are absolutely no placebo-controlled, randomized trials that look at the whole cannabis plant in relation to any of the disease states” mentioned earlier in the panel, he said. Those conditions included epilepsy, PTSD and cancer. Berry also noted that components of cannabis, including THC and CBD, have been shown through research to be effective in certain health situations.

In response to a question from Heath, who cited a report noting a decrease in opioid use in Colorado since the legalization of marijuana in that state, Berry expressed doubt that marijuana could lessen the possibility of an addiction.

“When I ask (patients), ‘What substance did you start with before you started with any other substance?’ “ he said, “invariably it was marijuana, tobacco and alcohol.”

Pushkin approached the question from a different angle.

“I do believe that when we give doctors more options to reduce pain, we’ll see less addiction from the outset,” he said. “Unfortunately in West Virginia, a lot of our problems have stemmed from the over-prescribing of opioids.”

Pushkin described marijuana as non-addictive and non-lethal, unlike substances such as alcohol.

The discussion also included consideration of recreational marijuana — and how such legalization could affect illicit street sales. Forbes contended that young people would be safer if the temptation to reach for marijuana from the streets

He said he once represented a 19-year-old woman who bought marijuana on the street with dire consequences.

“You buy a street drug you have no idea what you’re getting,” he said. “When you buy something that’s regulated by the government, and it’s tracked seed to sale, you know exactly what strain of cannabis is in the product that you’re buying.”

For now, the state’s greatest challenge may be to determine how create an operative framework for medical marijuana by July. Forbes said the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board has issued recommendations to improve current law. The report is available at https://dhhr.wv.gov/bph/Pages/Medical-Cannabis-Program.aspx.