By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After a surprise procedural move that catapulted a bill to legalize medical marijuana to the House floor and hours of debate over two amendments, the legislation passed by an overwhelming majority Tuesday.
Lawmakers who supported the amended bill said the legislation wasn’t what they had envisioned, but was a good starting point.
Those who voted against it, however, said they had concerns of going against federal law and said the state should have waited for guidance from the FDA and the DEA before delving into the issue.
The bill headed back to the Senate for legislators to either confirm the changes made by the House or to decide against it. Last Friday, the Senate passed the bill to the House on a 28-6 vote.
Although the Senate did not take up House messages Tuesday night, it is set to take them up in Wednesday’s session.
After the House passed the bill Tuesday, Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he thought some of the changes to the bill seemed unnecessary. However, he felt confident the chamber would support it.
“There are things in there that add a bunch of unnecessary things to the goal of allowing people to receive some relief from their pain and suffering,” Carmichael said. “The things the House did are unnecessary, but they probably made some positive changes as well. I think we will accept those and get this process started.”
He said he didn’t foresee any barriers coming up in the Senate not concurring with the changes. He said there has been a wide support base among senators for medical marijuana and as Senate President, wants to facilitate the will of the body by putting the bill on the agenda.
“In my view, and I’ve been a sponsor of it in the past, our first calling is to alleviate the pain and suffering of those in need,” Carmichael said. “I felt like there was enough evidence that supports the fact that medical marijuana has some palliative effects, so who are we to stand in the way of relieving pain and suffering?”
Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who is the lead sponsor of the bill, said the amended version isn’t what he initially wanted but he hopes the Senate will concur.
“I’m not angered at this,” he said. “It’s still something positive for the state of West Virginia and something that will provide relief for thousands of people. So you can’t smoke it but you can still get the oil. That can still be used with vaping when that comes into play. I still think it’s beneficial and I want it to be legal so these people are not breaking the law to help their children.”
Ojeda said he thinks the Senate will respond positively Wednesday and concur with the changes.
“There were only six people against it and some were against it because of the two flowering plants but that’s gone now. This has a great opportunity to pass, hopefully tomorrow.”
If the Senate concurs, it heads to the governor. Grant Herring, Gov. Jim Justice’s press secretary, said in an emailed statement that the governor is watching the bill closely.
“The governor’s said all along that he believes in compassion for the terminally ill and is open to medical marijuana,” Herring said.
Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, who succeeded last week with a motion to send the bill straight to the floor for first reading, said he wasn’t surprised at the way things turned out.
“One of the reasons I did what I did is because I believe it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” Folk said. “It is what it is and it’s time to move forward. And because of the implementation scheduling, there is room to fine tune things.”
Folk said he views the bill as amended as a step in the right direction and hopes it will become law.
“We got way past getting the conversation started,” he said. “I think it’s an affirmation of what people in the whole state feel.”
Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, also voted for the bill Tuesday but said he really struggled with the issue and gave it a lot of thought before settling on his final decision. He said as a Christian, he consulted several passages in the Bible and asked for guidance from God.
Moye said he couldn’t stop thinking about a mother with a daughter who had countless seizures a day that was reduced to having days without seizures after taking medical marijuana.
“This little girl has a better quality of life,” Moye said. “I would be a very hard-hearted Christian to withhold any better quality of life from any little kid.”
Moye said it was still a tough vote for him but said believes the bill as amended has enough checks and balances to make sure people are using it medicinally and not recreationally.
“This is not for those who want to get high. This is for those who have medical needs and there were a couple of things I would have preferred to be a little stricter but it’s the best product we could come up with to help those in need.”
Raleigh Democrat Mick Bates said he was happy with the House’s action.
“I’m pleased the House was responsive to the wishes of the majority of West Virginians and took up this neglected issue,” he said. “That I was able to support this legislation and a bill passed despite any shortcomings it may have back in the Senate, I am hopeful that they will concur and send it to the governor to sign so patients who need medicinal cannabis have access to compassionate treatment with appropriate safeguards.”
Raleigh Republican Delegate John O’Neal was one of the 24 legislators who voted against Senate Bill 386. He said he appreciated the work put in from Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, in his amendment, along with other members of the body. He also said he felt Shott’s amendment took a “bad bill from the Senate and turned it into a much more improved bill.”
“The bill we passed is a conservative, narrow, strict bill and I hope it will provide an opportunity for people who believe that this will give them that help,” he said.
O’Neal said he voted no on the bill because in his view, the state should wait for guidance from the federal government first.
“I believe that any drug, any substance that we’re going to put out there and claim is a healing substance that it really needs to be tested and approved by the FDA,” O’Neal said. “It needs to run through clinical trials. … Until that happens, this is a no on any type of use on the substance but I hope if some people believe they can get relief, I’m happy for them and I’m pleased we took a cautious approach.”
Fayette Republican Tom Fast also voted against the bill, saying it is in direct violation of federal law.
“We are absolutely setting up a system for people to violate federal law,” Fast said. “Banks cannot legally receive money or transactions when money comes from marijuana and there are issues with CDL licenses. You can’t lawfully possess a firearm and use marijuana. … Are we a nation of laws or are we not? This bill just passed tells us we are not a nation of laws. If we are a nation of laws, then the government is supposed to obey the law. We have decided we are above the law and that is dangerous precedent.”
See more from The Register-Herald