Charleston — As West Virginia state officials have worked over the past two and a half years to implement a medical marijuana program in the state, Rusty Williams has watched his friends move away.
Although the law passed in 2017 and was scheduled to be in place two months ago, state officials say implementation is still years out. Just Thursday, the state treasurer’s office announced it had finally found a financial institution – the Charleston-based Element Federal Credit Union — to handle the revenue.
The law also forbade patients to grow their own plants and allows only companies to sell the product. And the state Department of Health and Human Resources still has to set up a system for receiving and accepting applications to do so, as well as train doctors to recommend cannabis.
“I know a lot of people that have moved and as much as I hate to do it, when people come to me now and they ask me, ‘Hey, I was just diagnosed with cancer and I don’t know what to do; what is your advice?’ I tell them, if they have the means, to move,” Williams said. “To pack their stuff and move to a state where they won’t be considered a criminal for using a flower.”
Williams lobbied on the issue at the Capitol from the beginning. He remembers hearing the phones ringing off the hook from medical cannabis supporters in 2017.
“For somebody that had never been here before, just walking in, just this building can be intimidating,” he said, “but when you fight something like cancer, it’s really hard to be intimidated.”
Williams lobbied for a version of the bill that would have allowed patients to grow their own plants. But ultimately, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law that requires companies to pay hefty application fees to sell their product and prohibits patients from smoking or growing the plant on their own.
Williams estimates that if patients would have been permitted to grow their own plants, they could have been experiencing relief from a variety of conditions – chronic pain, cancer, terminal illness and post-traumatic stress disorder among them – within months.
In 2012, he was told that without aggressive chemotherapy, he’d have about four months to live.
“This plant saved my life,” he said.
Williams noted that DHHR recently told the Charleston Gazette-Mail the program is still two years out.
“To a cancer patient, that’s a death sentence,” he said.
Williams, of St. Albans, said he couldn’t imagine a more hopeless feeling than the way he felt when he was diagnosed. It was Mother’s Day.
“Even when you come home from chemotherapy on days that aren’t necessarily terrible, that hopeless feeling never really leaves your brain,” he said. “You’re very aware of the fact that you’re dying when you go through chemotherapy.”
CBD alone wouldn’t have helped, he said. CBD is derived from the hemp plant and does not create a “high.”
“We hear lawmakers talking about how CBD is the way you should go because they take the intoxicant out of it,” Williams said. “That does cancer patients and people who are dealing with terminal illnesses a great disservice – I believe – because I think your mental state is more important than anything else when you’re going through that.
“It allows you to focus on something other than the fact that you’re dying.”
Williams said there is talk of altering the law in the 2020 legislative session to allow the personal cultivation of plants.
But he notes patients would still need to obtain identification cards from the state DHHR, and that U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart, representing the Southern District of West Virginia, has said that federal law prohibits medical marijuana users from having guns. Stuart also frequently makes anti-marijuana legalization public comments.
“If we decriminalize personal cultivation for patients, then that’s going to require patients to register with the DHHR, before they can grow their plants,” Williams said. “That’s basically providing Mike Stuart a hit list. Here’s the people growing – go get their firearms.”
To Williams, the solution is to decriminalize cannabis.
“Anybody with Google and five minutes of time can research the issue and see very quickly that the roots of cannabis prohibition are deeply seeded in racist soil,” he said, “and the perpetuation of prohibition nationally is doing nothing but making it worse.”
While he’s encouraged to see a credit union selected, Williams is still frustrated by the restrictions in place in the law.
Companies that want to grow must pay a $5,000 application fee and $50,000 permit fee, as well as show they have $2 million in capital.
“We’re in a state where just about every inch of this state has been decimated by the opioid and addiction epidemic fueled by pharmaceutical industry greed and that’s who you want to hand it to, really?” he said. “We’ve got people who have been using cannabis 30, 40, 50 years in the same form and now you’re going to tell them, ‘Hey, you can’t use this plant in its natural form (and) let’s trust the good people at these processing facilities to come up with some processed crap for you to take’?”
Following the passage of the law, WIlliams served as patient advocate on the state’s medical cannabis advisory board.
That group recommended that patients who have met certain requirements be able to buy smokable forms of marijuana, as well as allow companies to vertically integrate, meaning allow one company to serve two or three of those roles — meaning a grower could also be a processor, for example.
In 2019, the Legislature altered the law to allow vertical integration.
“So they took care of the business aspect of it, but it’s really frustrating to be on an advisory board and have your official recommendations completely just tossed out because they didn’t come back, I guess, the way the Republican legislature wanted them to come back,” Williams said.
Williams, who is running for the House of Delegates in West Virginia’s 35th District, noted that politicians often talk about “how big industry always comes in to West Virginia, steals industry away from West Virginia citizens and then sends the profit right out the door.
“That’s been the model from every industry we’ve ever had here,” he said. “And I was really frustrated because with medical cannabis, we had an opportunity to allow small farmers and small business owners to participate in an industry that could have lifted them and potentially their communities out of poverty.”
He also worries about other barriers, including a limit on the number of dispensaries in the state.
“You’re going to have people that have to travel and if they don’t have transportation or they don’t have the financial resources, they’re gonna grow,” he said. “I would, and if the laws don’t change, and they get caught growing with one plant, we have a mandatory minimum of one year in jail for cultivation. So they’re going to go to jail for using a medicine that the state of West Virginia says they’re legally allowed to use and then through civil asset forfeiture, they’re going to potentially lose everything they’ve ever worked for.
“To me, that’s unacceptable. Those issues have to be addressed before we allow businessmen to come in here and build empires on the backs of the sick.”
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