Charleston, WV – Medical marijuana brings a dramatic decline in opioid deaths, supporters say. And they hope that will be enough to break the logjam in getting West Virginia’s cannabis program going.
They most often point to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found when medical marijuana becomes available, opioid overdose deaths fall by about a quarter. They are now also arguing that a different federally funded study published in March confirmed the reduction.
Fans of medical cannabis says separate research connects the dots by showing lower use of prescription painkillers when legal marijuana is available, and suggesting that people are in fact, substituting cannabis for more dangerous medicines.
Gordon Simmons is a field organizer for the West Virginia Public Workers Union, and he started being interested in medical marijuana as a possible funding source for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. But he says he “came across reams of material about actual medical benefits. Which was like oh, boy – this is a real, positive social good.”
Simmons’s surprise matches what a lot of people are going through, when family and friends bring back stories of the benefits they see in other states. Even very conservative lawmakers might be swayed by personal stories like those of then Delegate Republican Bill Flanigan, who spoke about how medical marijuana helped him get though chemotherapy during the 2016 legislative session.
Still, the legislature has yet to take up the comparatively small changes needed implement the medical marijuana law passed last year.
The state needs to find a way for cannabis dispensaries to have bank accounts. But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said medical marijuana possession and is still illegal, and 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
When asked this spring if the issue should be taken up in a special session, House Speaker Tim Armstead, said "any attempt to address the medical marijuana issue in special session right now would be premature. I don’t think any of the proposals, including those offered during the regular session or by the Treasurer, go far enough to address the concerns over conflicts with federal money laundering laws.”
With medical marijuana offering what he sees as a clear way to reduce opioid overdose deaths, Simmons says he finds the delay frustrating. “We are in a crisis situation. This isn’t something we have the luxury of sort of thinking about or pondering over too much.”
As he puts it, “if there's a demonstrable reduction in deaths, it just needs to be public policy.”
For a humorous take on the Medical Marijuana Debate in West Virginia check out Bil Lepp's "Legalizing Marijuana".
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.