Digging Deeper: By Dan Heyman
In 2016, Bill Flanigan made his first speech on the floor of the legislature. Flanigan had been named by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as a Republican Delegate to fill an empty seat in Monongalia County, and he spoke passionately about how medical cannabis had helped him deal with his cancer treatment. Observers credited that speech with helping to kill a bill that would have increased mandatory sentences for people caught with marijuana.
Flanigan left politics after becoming alienated from both major parties and what he describes as the slimy political climate in Charleston – he says he was offered $20,000 in campaign donations to vote for a Right-to-Work bill, which he turned down. He now lives in the state part-time and cares for a hemp farm here.
In this interview with West Virginia Strong, Flanigan describes in detail his horrific experiences with chemotherapy and how medical marijuana saved him from abandoning treatment. He says it took him from dismissing medical cannabis as a joke to making it his life’s work.
Many of the questions have been heavily edited or reconstructed. The answers have been edited as little as possible – strictly for clarity and intelligibility.
West Virginia Strong: So, Bill. Tell the audience a bit about yourself and your history in politics.
Bill Flanigan: I'm a former delegate – part time attorney and full-time hemp grower. I'm living in Florida but traveling back to the state to care for my farm.
I did one session. The 82nd session. I did not go after a second race due to health issues. And quite honestly it was probably a good choice. I didn't really think much of being down in Charleston. It's pretty slimy. I was offered money to vote against things. It was pretty creepy.
WV S: Someone tried to pay you money for your vote?
Flanigan: They never offered it directly to you. They always gets you a lot of money for your campaign. That's how they do it. We'll make sure we'll get you ten thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars in your campaign. So that's why these guys, these politicians end up with huge war chests because people can give as much money as they want – well, I guess you have to stay what the limits – to their campaign funds.
The right to work issue is one where they they wanted me to make sure I voted to put the right to work issue on. And I told them I didn't really think it was a good idea, can't really vote for it. I had some issues with my family that are union members where after I got down there my father was very clearly asked me, please don't do that.
So I just felt like I couldn't do that. I've got no proof of it. Just my word of mouth and then, yeah, I can I'm going to go that route. But what's more likely to have happened, that it happened or it didn't?
My father, my grandfather, my uncles had been in the union. A lot of them had been. I at first ,when I went down, I thought about the fact that maybe we need to make some changes in the state. Where we've been stagnant for so long. But the more I looked into it the more I researched the more I talked to my father.
I had a great uncle that passed away actually, like three days before I was appointed. And during his funeral I got to hear so many stories from these guys talking about their time in the unions. And all of them were very very clearly opposed to Right-to-Work. They just felt like it wasn't going to be a good idea, and how much it was going to hurt them. So after talking to everybody I thought well maybe I made the wrong choice.
I let Speaker Armstead know that before I took the appointment, that 'I I know I told you guys I'd be able to vote for it, but I can't do that. There's no way I'm going to vote for that. If you don't want me take the appointment just let me know. I'll let you put whoever else you want in. I was very up front with him.
WV S: Do you think Armstead is an honest man?
Flanigan: I believe he is. I Always felt like he was very upfront honest with me.
WV S: Did you have cancer when you were in the legislature?
Flanigan: I had recently finished chemo, when I was appointed by Governor Tomblin. I really just wanted to just get back into life. I've been battling cancer almost eight years at that time – radiation, multiple surgeries taking things out. It was proceeding through my lymphatic system. So we got to where I had to go through chemotherapy. And it was pretty much misery.
It's hard to explain to somebody how, miserable you feel during chemotherapy without actually being able to go through it.
WV S: What kind of cancer was it?
Flanigan: It started with testicular cancer. But it was proceeding through my lymph nodes at that point. They labeled it as stage three. They claim that testicular cancer can't be called stage four, but I guess that I would have been as close to that as you can get.
I did my first scan after chemo, during session. Actually the Prevailing Wage vote actually happened on the same day. They were showing that I still had glow signs, so that was when I had withdrawn, basically I said 'I don't think I want to pursue staying in office.'
WV S: Tell us about how you started taking medical marijuana.
Flanigan: By the ninth day in chemo, the doctors had already prescribed me nine different pills. They had pills for pain and pills for sleep. They had pills if you get constipation, they had pills for not constipation – for diarrhea – they had pills if you get nausea. There were just pills for everything.
It was crap. I mean I felt terrible, it wasn't helping. I walked around with this constant, like my forehead was just scrunched up. If you're trying to squint from from being in pain. You kind of lose vision. You can't see as well. You've got a thousand different tingles and feelings that run through your body as nerve cells are killed and replaced. All of this was going on.
I literally was within a week and a half saying 'forget it, I don't even want to, I'm not going to mess with any more of this stuff.' When a friend of mine had sent me chocolate chip cookies basically has cannabis in them. It was basically like a life changer. It really made the rest of the four months, I don't want to say they were pleasant but at least I could live with it.
I had these mouth sores within the first nine days. They tell me to rise it with hydrogen peroxide. And then you'd look in a mirror and you would just see these huge splotches were the peroxide was cleaning out the sores. It was in my throat. The constipation level was so bad that. You know nine days in that the nurses are coming and telling you you're gonna need manual extraction. To try to make things move.
All of these problems and issues that I had within the first two weeks of, by the fourth month of using cannabis during my chemotherapy – my mouth sores had gone away, my bowel movements, everything was functioning properly.
I think it was just a matter of removing so many pills from from the equation. I was able to eat dinner with my family. To sit down around them.
WV S: How did you decide to make your speech about it?
Flanigan: I kind of kept my mouth shut about it at the legislature. I introduced some bills saying that we needed to get medical marijuana going for people that needed it. And they told me that since it was the first session of Republican control, they really didn't want to hear that type of stuff yet on the floor.
They were like 'can we just wait till next session?' I was like as long as we have a discussion about it, I can wait. Sure. But then that thing happened with the mandatory prison sentences. Five to 15 years – actually they were trying to put an add on sentencing, for a drug traffickers. Giving people five to 15 years mandatory in state prison.
Sitting there listening to them, explain why cannabis needed to be included, with heroin and meth and cocaine and crack. It sickened me to the point where I just had to stand up and say something about it because of what I was hearing. I knew it was all so false.
WV S: But you were not still in chemo.
Flanigan: Chemo had finished. December 13th. I think with my last official chemo treatment. So the session started the second week of January it was about a month and a half later. I was still feeling it. You know you could still see, like in my fingernails. Cause each time you go through a session with chemo, your fingernails stop growing – you'll get a line like get in a tree trunk. You'll get those on your fingernails and toenails. Like everything stops for that period of the treatment, but then it'll restart and they'll start growing again. Those hadn't worn off yet, actually.
I had talked to a few people about it on a personal level – what I had gone through and explained to them why I wanted these medical issues to be addressed or at minimum make it a misdemeanor for possession of certain levels. Just decriminalized it basically.
So I felt if I could, explain to people on a personal level what had happened and how it helped me, maybe I could get support for decriminalization at least. And Delegate Nelson came to me several times during that two day period for the discussion on that bill and said, 'if you'll stand up you'll be able to save lives. You have to tell your story.'
And I didn't want my grandmother to know I had used cannabis. It's really kind of one of those weird things. You know even though it helped me, i was under the same stigma. Which was embarrassing.
I'm embarrassed now that I felt that way. I'm no longer embarrassed by it. But at the time I was embarrassed. I can't believe how silly I felt about it now.
Now I'm as big proponent for it as you can get. I've watched it help my father a year later. My father went through a terrible bout of cancer. He had three massive brain tumors in his head that were so bad that basically four days after they diagnosed his cancer they thought he had a stroke. He couldn't talk to us anymore. He would talk but his words weren't coming out correctly. He couldn't articulate.
I went to Colorado, and sent him medicine and he was able to, by using a really strong CBD supplement, he was able to communicate again for a few hours at a time. I was able to speak with them for a for several weeks after his brain tumors had gone into play.
WV S: I’m sorry to hear that. Did he come out all right?
Flanigan: No, he passed away within 32 days. The worst part was that he was that was he was actually consistently at my home during my cancer. Working and helping me and taking care of things on my farm. For him to get it like it happened, and as quickly as it did is still upsetting.
WV S: Wow, I’m sorry. So, let’s change the subject. Tell us about how your politics has changed. You left the GOP?
Flanigan: I wouldn't consider myself to be a Democrat or a Republican anymore, either one. I would consider myself an independent now. I feel like both parties have gotten so far off base as to what most of – I certain believe from what most of West Virginia wants – but I also think most of what the country wants. We're either so far left or so far right, that we no longer have anything that can happen for the good of the country in the middle. It's sickening. The whole political process in our country sickens me now.
I hate to even say that because I feel like that's one of greatest assets in our country is our democracy. But I feel like it's so polluted with the things that are going on from outside sources that the people that are making votes now are making votes with proper insight as to what they're voting for. If that makes any sense.
WV S: It does. But what do you believe? How do you see the economy?
Flanigan: Clearly you can't have jobs without business. You can't have business without people working. We have to get it to the point where people can get a good enough job to support a family, while allowing a business owner to grow enough to support the business, and stay healthy enough to pay for the employees.
I'm running into that right now in my hemp business. We want to be able to employ people, and it's so difficult to keep enough money – because people don't want to come in and work for nothing. And I don't blame them. But I certainly can't afford to pay you twenty dollars an hour right now as much as I'd love to. So how do we get to that point where we can get jobs to pay people enough money. To support both sides.
What would be the point of me running the business if I walk home with nothing every day? It wouldn't make sense to the business owner but at the same time I don't think we need corporations that have – I think was it Apple just hit a trillion?
At some point could they afford to pay their employees more? Should they stop making products in China? I think so. Should they make products in America? Yeah. It would certainly help us. If you're at that kind of threshold you have that much money, at some point you need to be able to bring jobs back into the area where we're at now.
And I think West Virginia should be a really good example. We've got great employees there that can develop into something really good. But how do we make that happen with our tax system that we have, with the judicial system that we have.
WV S: What did you farm before you got sick? And tell us about your farm now.
Flanigan: I had goats and chickens and things like that. Now I'm growing hemp. Because the I've researched hemp... The hemp that we grow in West Virginia has no THC in it, or very very little. Point three percent.
I think there's going to be a ton of medications that can come out of this it's going to be able to help people. Maybe we'll call them supplements, so it doesn't have to be called a medication. It could be beneficial, so people don't need to get a sleeping pill, say.
Right now we haven't set pricing on it. What we're looking for extraction, so we're going to be extracting CBD. But we've had people make some offers.
I remember there was a woman who talked to me about legalizing marijuana for medicine. And she was saying 'you have to do this.' She was very in my face. And I basically just kind of blew her off. I said 'listen, if you guys want marijuana legalized then you should just be out there advocating to legalize marijuana.'
I had witnessed it in college so I knew it wasn't anything as dangerous as some of the propaganda out there wants you to believe. But I really felt in 2014 medically I thought it was a joke. Honestly. I can admit that I literally I didn't believe it for one second that it would help people, medically.
And I think that's going to be the biggest problem people have right now is until they can physically see this occur. I don't think they're going to believe it. Until you've seen it firsthand, say it's your uncle.
That's the other thing I've been doing. I've been making arthritic medicine for family members. People are amazed by how well it does for their hands and feet. Maybe three weeks ago I made some for my uncle. And he called me two days later and he said 'I've never thought I'd be able to squeeze my hands again. I'm squeezing my hands right now.' He said 'I can't believe this.'
I was going to run for state Senate as an independent because both parties are total idiots. I haven't told anybody this – the fact that Don Blankenship pulled almost 20 percent of the vote for a Senate race, the fact that guy could pull that kind of vote in West Virginia kind of made me decide I don't want to be a politician in West Virginia at all.
I mean gee whiz I love the place. I may still come back one day. But it sickened me when I see that guy pull that kind of vote. How is that possible?
The ability for these companies – and I believe Facebook was probably part of it, at the center – to identify pick out individual voters. The Republican Party shared with us as candidates, lists with the likely positions for the voters in our districts. And they would base it off of whether or not you bought Golf Digest, or whether you had subscriptions to Field and Stream and Outdoor Life. Different things of that nature.
To tell me that this guy likes guns or something like that. You should go talk with him. And then it would make sense because you can canvass an area, and you could completely bypass the houses you knew were going to be a waste of time. And that that was given to us freely through upper level candidates. Because what we would do essentially is when we went and actually verified the information, the up-the-ballot candidate could then go back through and talk to them as well.
But the origination of all of that knowledge, all the intellect that has been taken up and known about everybody in our state, that was bought by someone else. Somebody spent the money for that. And it's not being disclosed to the people as to who's doing that. Why are they able to do that? And that's what polluting our political so greatly.
There's candidates spending one hundred twenty thousand dollars for a twenty thousand dollar a year job? I mean come on, for real?
WV S: If you could say one thing directly to the audience, what would you want them to hear?
Flanigan: The main thing I have to say is to the politicians. They really need to listen to the people that are telling them that cannabis is saving their lives. I don't know what else I can do in my life anymore but this is going to be the one thing I'm trying to do, for the rest of it – is help people that need it, and provide them with the things that our government keeps telling them that they can have for a really really terrible reasons.
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.