West Virginia is on course to become the 29th state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The House of Delegates, after a long debate Monday that stretched into Tuesday, voted 76-24 to approve SB 386 creating the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act.

The bill differs significantly from the Senate version, and now the Senate can either change it back (which would cause the bill to end up in a conference committee where its fate would be uncertain) or simply accept the changes.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) and Senator Richard Ojeda (D-Logan), who have been pushing the bill, both tell MetroNews the Senate will likely approve the House version and pass it as is, sending it to the Governor, who will likely sign it.

The unexpected approval of the medical marijuana bill reflects the changing attitudes here and across the country toward the drug, especially when it comes to providing potential relief from chronic pain and other health problems.

A survey last year by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 61 percent support legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, while a CNN survey from 2014 found that 88 percent of those questioned believe doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes.

Those results are similar to what I found in an unscientific online poll. Eighty-eight percent of the 1,630 Twitter followers who responded either strongly or somewhat agreed with legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, while 12 percent somewhat or strongly disagreed.

The West Virginia Medical Association opposes the bill, while the American Medical Association urges the National Institutes of Health to do more research. Meanwhile, research institutions say they are hampered by their limited access to the quantity and quality of pot necessary for studies because it remains a Schedule I controlled substance.

However, there have been studies, lots of them. Recently the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report on its review of more than 10,000 scientific abstracts of marijuana studies. It found “evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.”

But the review of the studies also found “moderate evidence to suggest that there is a link between cannabis use and the development of substance dependence and/or a substance abuse disorder for substances including alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott (R-Mercer), who crafted the legislation approved by the House, said the bill is modeled from legislation passed in four other states recently. “(We are) trying to learn from what went before,” Shott said.

The West Virginia proposal is similar to Pennsylvania’s, where an approved patient cannot grow or smoke marijuana. Instead, they must obtain it from a state-permitted dispensary in the form of a pill or liquid.

One of the fears is that West Virginia, which already has a drug epidemic that sprang from massive over prescribing of opioids, will provide yet another legal way to get high. The state should be gun-shy, but the extended debate and multiple safeguards in the 56-page bill already demonstrate the state is aware of the risk and moving cautiously toward providing some possible relief for suffering West Virginians.

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