CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Just six months remain until medical cannabis is to become available in West Virginia, though issues with the bill’s content continue to cause delays.
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, believes that because of these delays, the July 1 date will not be met.
“It needs to be done. People need to be helped,” Romano said. “You wouldn’t withhold hydrocodone from people, even though there’s side effects that can hurt people if it’s misused, but we give that because pain medication is necessary. This is a necessary drug to be able to give to patients.”
There are two repairs Romano said need to be made to the bill, which was first proposed in 2017, in order for medical cannabis to move forward in the Mountain State. Both of those needed fixes, he said, are related to funding.
“We need to have some kind of bank for folks to put their money in because federal banks will not allow their money in it because they’re afraid somebody from the feds, U.S. Attorney General’s Office is going to prosecute them,” Romano said. “And two, we need to get some money to the commission so they can function and do the things they need to do.”
Romano said there’s also been ideology issues, with Democrats and Republicans in Charleston battling back and forth over components of the bill that he believes are vital needs.
“I put smokeables back in for cancer patients,” he said. “I increased the number of processors and retail distributors because you should have one in every county if it can make it. People shouldn’t have to cross county lines to get their prescriptions, is my opinion.”
Then, Romano said the House Republicans attempted to make a deal.
“I was told by the leadership in the House that if we let them pass a bill first and it came over, we could do a strike and insert, which means we strike theirs out and put ours in, and they would pass it. That occurred after much negotiation,” he said. “They took back out smokeables, they took out the extra growers and processors.”
Seeing this become a highly politicized issue when people need the help has caused Romano to become discouraged.
“The evidence that we have down in the legislation is that is helps people with seizures. PTSD patients get amazing help from it. Cancer patients, it helps them tremendously to actually inhale the smoke and it helps them with eating,” he said. “And even some rare child diseases, neurological diseases, where children have no hope, it brings their brain back to life. It just should be available for that kind of use.”
Currently, 29 states have medical marijuana available, and yet, Romano said there’s still a large misconception and stigma attached to the prescription.
“It’s going to be a prescription. Like hydrocone, penicillin or anything else, you’re going to have to have a doctor’s prescription. But it helps so many people, and that’s the key. Right now it’s a Schedule I narcotic, right up there with heroin and ecstasy and all the bad drugs that you know. And even though oxycodone and fetanyl and propofol, which killed Michael Jackson, is a Schedule II narcotic.”
Of course, some states have even gone further than legalizing it for medical purposes.
Five states have passed legislation to allow for recreational use, including Washington, D.C. New York is currently in the works to become the sixth.
And Romano said he’d welcome the idea for West Virginia to join the list.
“Colorado’s had a very good result. Opioid use is down, I think, over 20 percent. Violent crimes is down 15 percent,” he said. “Colorado is just thriving because young people are there, it’s progressive, there’s all kinds of people going to work. It’s something we ought to consider.”
In fact, Romano believes decriminalizing marijuana could be an economic boost for the Mountain State.
“When I was on the county commission in Harrison County, our regional drug bill was between $2 million and $2.4 million a year,” he said. “Between 25 and 50 percent of that, depending on the year, was petty marijuana crimes because if you get arrested for even a minimal amount, it comes with a potential year in prison and we have to pay for that. So think what we could do with that money for 55 counties because every county is paying that kind of money.”
Taking marijuana out of the legal system could even assist in the much bigger drug crisis the state’s facing, Romano said.
“It quits being a gateway drug,” he said. “If you’re a young person and you say, ‘I’m going to try a little bit of marijuana’ — which you wouldn’t be able to do if it was legalized because it’d be in a liquor store and you’d have to be of age — you go down to a drug dealer because it’s illegal.”
That drug dealer, Romano said, is selling other Schedule I drugs like heroin that he or she is making more money from.
“So you know what he’s going to do, he’s going to sell you the marijuana and give you some heroin because he wants to hook you on that. That’s what’s happening to our kids,” he said.
His concern, however, is that instead the issue will continue to stay divided by politics while thousands of West Virginians suffer.
“What’s going to happen to West Virginia is what’s happened to us previously. We’re going to wait around for all the other states to do what is a good thing,” he said.
In the meantime, Romano said West Virginia lawmakers are “spinning ourselves into the ground.
“The feds may make us build another prison because there’s so much overcrowding,” he said. “You’re talking about $1 billion. Now do you not think that money could be spent for the rehabilitation of folks who have opioid addictions and do better things with it than house prisoners?”
Romano said his bill will go back in the ring for discussion this year, when the 2019
legislative session begins Jan. 9.
“I heard the republican leadership is going to have their own bill. If that happens, they’ll push that right through. I hope it has all the good things in it that we need to help all the people,” he said. “And if it doesn’t we’ll try to change it. If they make it effective on passage, there is a possibility we could come pretty close to the July 1 date.”