Charleston, WV. – Frustrated supporters of medical marijuana, inside and outside the capitol, say they again may have to go outside the normal process to beat what one delegate calls a “backdoor veto of public will.”
A few years ago medical marijuana was a fringe idea suited for Alaska and the West Coast. Now all of a sudden polling data suggest West Virginians favor it better than two to one, and the 2017 Medical Cannabis Act passed the legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan support.
But marijuana has been attacked as evil for most of a century. And when people have invested decades in a moral position they don’t surrender it easily. Delegate Mike Pushkin of Charleston was one of the Act’s key backers. He recalls that they had to resort to the very unusual Motion to Dispense Reference to get around House Speaker Tim Armstead.
“As far as I know, that may be the only time that’s ever been done. In the history of the legislature.” Armstead wanted to make the bill to go through three committees, which would have killed it. Pushkin says the Motion to Dispense Reference had been threatened before, but this may be the first time it was successfully been used to bypass the committee process.
Now, he says, the speaker is blocking the next step in enacting the state’s medical weed legalization, “a one paragraph bill” designed to get past a banking problem.
To plant the seeds of medical weed, West Virginia has to take in fees and issue licenses to folks who want to be growers, processors and sellers.
But the Department of Justice, under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has said it will bust medical marijuana possession and sale. U.S. Attorney for WV’s Southern District Mike Stuart tweeted that a bank that takes any drug money “could be found guilty of money laundering or conspiracy. Nothing changes when states legalize pot.”
Fed law makes it crime to engage in certain transactions, including involving insurer, with money known to be derived from cannabis. Law requires banks and financial firms to file suspicious activity reports for transactions involving pot. Not complying is big problem.— US Attorney Mike Stuart (@USAttyStuart) May 17, 2018
That could presumably, include any license fees the state of West Virginia takes in. Stuart’s office did not return a call requesting comment.
There are bills in congress to untie that knot, but they would have to get though a body that looks unable to agree on what toppings to put on a pizza. House of Delegate’s Speaker Tim Armstead says none of the proposals he’s seen “go far enough to address the concerns over conflicts with federal money laundering laws.”
State Treasurer John Purdue put forward two banking proposals based on looking at what the two dozen other states with medical marijuana have done. Armstead says neither one would solve the problem.
Delegate Pushkin wants the legislature to take up what he says is a simple plan to allow credit unions to accept state deposits, under the argument that credit unions work under a somewhat different set of federal rules. He sent Armstead a letter pressing that case, but he says he’s received no reply.
This leaves the weed lobby more than a little frustrated. Rusty Williams, the patient advocate on the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, says “every day” he hears from “parents with kids with epilepsy that have already gone out of state,” and from “senior citizens who would love to be getting off pain management drugs.”
According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the state could see real employment tax revenue growth with decriminalization. It’s hard to estimate how many people are waiting to get medical weed, but Williams says a survey by the Department of Health and Human Resources suggests it could be “tens of thousands.”
He also points to a Journal of American Medical Association study that showed states with broad medical cannabis saw an average 25% reduction in opiate overdoses. And Williams says the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency could save $18 million to $30 million a year, based on a separate survey that showed states with broad medical marijuana saw $154 million savings in reduced Medicaid prescriptions.
But more to the point, Williams says he worries that folks who could be helped “will be dead before this program that is implemented.”
Pushkin says lawmakers who want to move forward are left with an even more unusual option than what they used to get the act passed. He says when the legislature returns for interim meetings this Sunday they’ll move forward with a plan call themselves into session.
Under Article 6, Section 19 of the state constitution, if three fifths of the lawmakers in both houses ask for it, the legislature can bring itself into session. Pushkin admits that would be extremely unusual, but given the fact that Governor Jim Justices did not put medical marijuana banking on the call for the last special session, they may have few other choices.
Justice has played an odd role in this drama. He didn’t put the issue on the special session call, but he did include medical marijuana legalization as one of his accomplishments in a list displayed at his Monday press conference. His office did not return an email requesting clarification.
Pushkin says enough senators have already signed on. “We need about twenty more signatures in the house.” He says they were getting delegates signed on when progress stalled.
“We came up a little short because I think there was some pressure among the Republican caucus not to sign, even though you know a lot of them support it.”
He says “when we come back for June interims I believe we'll get a lot more signatures because from what I understand the speaker asked a lot of his caucus not to sign, assuring them that they would be working on it. And they haven't worked on it at all.”
Dan Heyman has been covering West Virginia politics and policy for more than two decades. He likes dogs but has trouble keeping kudzu from swallowing everything he owns. For more of Dan's WV Strong content, click here.