CHARLESTON – With bipartisan support, the West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday approved an amendment to a bill that would allow medical cannabis patients to use the dry leaf form of marijuana. 

"Setting us up to have pill form only is setting us up for failure," said Del. Brandon Steele, R- Raleigh.

West Virginia's current medical marijuana law, passed in 2017 but yet to be implemented, requires patients to use one of the following forms of medical cannabis: pill, oil, topical forms, including gels, creams or ointments; a "form medically appropriate for administration by vaporization or nebulization, excluding dry leaf or plant form;" tincture; liquid; or dermal patch.

The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee had already approved, earlier this month, an amendment to a rules bundle permitting patients to use the plant form of marijuana. After lawmakers pass laws, state agencies then write rules describing how they will implement those laws, then those rules go back to state lawmakers for final approval.

Lawmakers in the committee earlier this month were considering Senate Bill 339, a bundle of rules submitted for legislative approval by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, including several relating to the state's medical cannabis law. In that committee , Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, successfully moved to amend the rules bundle to allow patients to use the plant form of marijuana. 

But Steele, as well as Del. Mike Pushkin, D- Kanawha and one of the leading proponents of medical marijuana in the Legislature, said legislative lawyers said that they needed to again approve the amendment on the floor Wednesday.

They both also said that while DHHR has argued changes to the law will mean implementation will take more time, they say permitting plants and dry leaf will speed up implementation.

"The Medical Cannabis Act was passed and signed in 2017," Pushkin said. "It is now 2020 and the Bureau for Public Health has not provided for the continuing education for the doctors, they have not issued a single license and worst of all they have not issued one medical cannabis card for a patient in West Virginia. The least we could do is allow these patients to grow a small amount themselves because their state government, DHHR and the Bureau for Public Health, has obviously not made their health and welfare a top priority."

Steele said those in the medical cannabis industry have also told him permitting the natural form of cannabis would speed up the process. He said "the most productive thing we could have done for medical marijuana is that rules bundle."

On the floor Wednesday, the vote on the amendment to the rules bundle, Senate Bill 339, was 74-23.

Locally, Dels. Steele; Mick Bates, D- Raleigh; Jeff Campbell, D- Greenbrier; Roy Cooper, R- Summers; Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D- Greenbrier; Jeff Pack, R- Raleigh; Tony Paynter, R- Wyoming; and Margaret Staggers, D- Fayette, voted for the amendment. 

Dels. Tom Fast, R- Fayette; Kayla Kessinger, R- Fayette; and Chris Toney, R- Raleigh, voted against it. 

Meanwhile, in the West Virginia Senate, the Committee on the Judiciary almost considered earlier this week a bill that included a provision to allow patients to grow their own plants and possess dry leaf.

The original version of Senate Bill 752, sponsored by Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R- Kanawha, would have allowed doctors to give patients "compassion certificates" allowing them to grow their own marijuana. That version was set to be considered in the Judiciary Committee meeting Monday, but was taken off the agenda.

Patients would have been able to grow up to 12 plants and 12 seedlings, and to possess no more than four ounces of dry flower or leaf medical cannabis per patient, "(p)rovided, however, (t)hat compassion certificates and the authority authorized thereby become void upon the bureau declaring that there is sufficient medical cannabis to meet demand through the other means authorized by this article."

By Tuesday, that provision was taken out.

In the committee meeting Tuesday, Jason Frame, director of the West Virginia Office of Medical Cannabis, told lawmakers his office preferred few changes, as major changes could extend the time-line for rolling out the program.

West Virginia's medical cannabis law passed in 2017 but has yet to be implemented, in part because after U.S Attorney Mike Stuart frequently spoke against marijuana, banks were hesitant to handle the revenue, the state treasurer's office has said. Lawmakers amended the law during the 2019 legislative session to allow other types of financial institutions, including credit unions, to handle the revenue, and the treasurer's office announced in August 2019 that Charleston-based Element Federal Credit Union would be handling the revenue.

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