Marijuana push needs study

If Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, has his way, marijuana — both medical and recreational — will be a hot topic in Charleston during this legislative session.

During last week’s West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead, Pushkin said he plans to introduce in this session a bill to decriminalize marijuana, but believes it is time to start a discussion in the Mountain State about legalizing it for adult recreational use.

Among other reasons for doing so, Pushkin cited the revenue possibilities.

“If we were to allow for legal sale for adult use,” he said, the revenue could be approximately $80 million a year.

“There are a lot of things we could do with that,” he said.

Of course there are. But would it be worth it?

According to Pushkin “not a single state” that has legalized recreational marijuana has turned back, or felt as though it was a mistake.

“When you regulate it,” he said, “It makes it more difficult for someone underage to buy. The benefits to legalizing for adult use have far outweighed the negatives.”

In fact, Pushkin did a lot of comparing marijuana to alcohol. “We know there’s never been a case of a lethal overdose from cannabis,” he said. “We can’t say the same for alcohol.

“It’s not a lethal drug.”

Meanwhile, Dr. James Berry, D.O., associate professor and medical director of the Chestnut Ridge Center and of the Acute Dual Diagnosis Program at West Virginia University, pumped the brakes a bit.

He was concerned there is a high correlation between cannabis use and other ongoing addictions.

“The most common substance people are testing positive for in (drug treatment centers) is marijuana,” he said.

“When I ask (patients), ‘What substance did you start with before you started with any other substance?'” he said, “invariably it was marijuana, tobacco and alcohol.”

Tobacco and alcohol are legal, however. And Pushkin asked “But what is the percentage of people who use cannabis/marijuana who do NOT go on” to become addicted to opiates and other substances?

“Addiction lies within the person,” he said. “To blame the drug on the disease is a backwards way of looking at it.”

W. Jesse Forbes, Esq., member of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board under the Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Public Health, told a terrifying story of a 19-year-old woman he represented — “never been in trouble a day in her life” — who had decided with a friend to go out and buy some marijuana. It turned out what she purchased was laced with either PCP or bath salts and she “went crazy for three days.” During her psychotic episode she beat a man to death with a glass jar, and is now in prison.

“You buy a street drug you have no idea what you’re getting,” he said. “When you buy something that’s regulated by the government, and it’s tracked seed to sale, you know exactly what strain of cannabis is in the product that you’re buying.”

Berry’s concerns are important, though.

“The marijuana plant has hundreds of chemical compounds,” he said. Only a couple of them have been studied. Most of the substances in medical cannabis have not been subject to the kind of rigorous scientific testing and trials required of other prescribed drugs.

We simply do not know enough about it.

According to Forbes, the law requires a portion of the money from medical cannabis to go to the Department of Health and Human Resources for research of the plant.

I wonder if it might not make more sense for that money to go to West Virginia University medical researchers.

Imagine the feather in our caps if WVU is able to present the first complete analysis of medical marijuana, the research from which could be used by states across the country to craft their own legislation (or not).

But, as another member of the media pointed out during the question and answer session at the end of the panel discussion, West Virginia employers have a hard enough time finding workers who can pass a drug test as it is. Is this a good idea?

Pushkin replied that it is perfectly legal to get drunk, some workers have been known to show up to work drunk … and they get fired for it.

All this talk is getting quite a bit ahead of the issue, by the way. I do not envy Diana Stout, general counsel for the West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office, and her colleagues, who are trying to figure out how to handle the financial side of the medical cannabis law that has already passed.

“In West Virginia, we have a federal prosecutor who is really uncomfortable with marijuana,” she said. And banks won’t touch the money, though she says there are some credit unions that might.

“So we have drafted language that would ask the legislature to consider whether they want to insert into the bill the matter of credit unions,” she said. “If it passes, we will put it out to bid and hope someone will bid and do this.”

Everyone has until July 1 to get their ducks in a row, if even medical cannabis is going to work.

I would imagine the logistics of recreational marijuana would be a nightmare.

And no one — not even Pushkin — should fall into the trap that this latest shiny object is the revenue miracle we’ve all been waiting for. It might help. But it is only a small part of the answer that MUST someday come from a more diversified economy in the Mountain State.

In any case, Pushkin says he and many of his colleagues will be talking a lot about it during the upcoming legislative session. In fact, he noted later in the day that legalized marijuana for adult use was probably one of the few areas on which they and their Republican counterparts might disagree.

I tend to be a measure twice, cut once, person, and I lean more toward Berry’s thinking that we simply do not know enough yet to jump into this. The back-and-forth between Pushkin and Berry showed no clear winner during the panel discussion, and I have a feeling talk in the legislature will be just as hard to sort into right and wrong.

“Adults in West Virginia should have the right to choose whether they use this plant or not,” said Pushkin.

“We as a society have to decide what we want to do and weigh the balance of liberties versus public health,” Berry said.

Judging by good arguments and important information coming from all the panelists during this one, relatively short discussion, it will not be an easy decision to make.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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