CHARLESTON -- A bill involving the state's medical marijuana program died in the West Virginia House of Delegates in the final minutes of the legislative session and advocates are worried about the future of the program.
The Senate amended the bill earlier Saturday, the final day of the 60-day legislative session. As amended, the Bureau of Public Health would no longer be able to promulgate rules on plant or dry leaf and instead asked the bureau to study the question to determine whether there are therapeutic uses for cannabis in that form.
The bill also allowed for vertical integration, allowing growers and processors to be dispensaries or any combination of the three. There were limits on how many dispensaries a person could have and under the bill, the bureau
There were some technical errors with the bill that may have spawned a veto from the governor's office, but Democrats had amendments to address those issues.
The amended version also changed criminal provisions, striking those which provided for a reduced sentence for simple possession of non-medical marijuana. The bill as amended prohibits smoking and requires the legislature to take action to change that.
The amended bill does provide a tax on cannabis, allowing the bureau to collect fees and charges generated by the legislation. Half of the tax would go toward the medical cannabis program implementation fund. The other half would be deposited to the Department of Administration's Public Employees Insurance Agency Basic Insurance Premium Fund. There were some concerns with funding the program, since the program was not set up with initial funding.
Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, asked for the status of the bill and once it was determined where the medical marijuana bill was, moved to take up for immediate consideration. House Speaker Tim Armstead said the message had not been brought to the House floor. Byrd then moved that the bill be brought to the floor but Armstead ruled his motion out of order.
Armstead said he felt the bill had too many errors.
"We were told anytime we get a message over from the Senate on anything our lawyers are to look over it, the chairman of the committee looks over it too, and they had some very serious concerns about the bill. Those were concerns we didn't really feel like we had very much time this evening to craft an amendment to go back to the Senate particularity when that bill didn't come over to us until later today,"
Armstead said following Saturday's adjournment. "We really need to look at the problems with this bill and we didn't think we needed to put that product out there when there were concerns, and there was not, from what we were hearing, a willingness to refuse to concur in that amendment that came over. We just felt it needed more work and needed developed. And apparently there were code sections that were cited in that bill that don't exist and there are concerns about the legality of some of the institutions that would be handling the money and it's just something that brings up a lot of concerns. "
Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, was upset to hear that the House adjourned without taking up the bill. Ojeda was a big proponent of the bill and the lead sponsor of the bill that set up the medical marijuana program.
"They said they didn't receive the message, which was absolute garbage," Ojeda said. "This is an attack on the people in our state who are sick. These are the people in our state who are poor. ... He (Armstead) used a tactic to kill everything."
Ojeda said he worried about the medical cannabis advisory's board and its future after the bill didn't pass.
"They needed $2 million to start the seed-to-sale program. The Tax Department would not release the funds because the program was unworkable. We are essentially not a medical marijuana state anymore."
Russell Williams, a patient advocate on the medical cannabis advisory board, shared Ojeda's concerns.
"We will try to go through the governor's office to see if there is an executive order he can do to set those funds aside," Williams said. "Who knows what happens now? What they did was for religious morality but he screwed the patients of West Virginia. ... This just hurts the sickest and the poorest among us."
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, also had concerns.
"This is very problematic for the program," Miley said. "Unless and until there is vertical integration you won't attract many, if any, investors into the program. There's not economic incentive to invest in the program unless there are dispensary models. I don't know if we will get many, if any, applications, and as a result we won't get many, if any, application fees for the program. The bill that we introduced here in the House and passed out created the recommendations of the board that were made there and now none of those recommendations have been implemented.
Miley said he wasn't surprised the bill did not make it through.
"For it to come down to the last day I'm not really surprised they waited a long time," he said. "I am a little surprised because I thought everyone recognized the need to make the changes that were recommended by the board, and that didn't happen. It's a little disappointing. It is what it is at this point."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @AndreaLannom