Pubdate: Sun, 06 Oct 2013
Source: Herald-Dispatch, The (Huntington, WV)
Copyright: 2013 The Herald-Dispatch
Author: Tom Miller
Note: Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The 
Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch 
opinion page.


Right now there is at least a "faint hint" that the 2014 West 
Virginia Legislature may consider a bill to authorize the 
legalization of medical marijuana. Advocates and some physicians now 
claim marijuana can alleviate some illnesses or other medical conditions.

But the federal government doesn't condone it, so an anticipated 
debate about the issue looms during the next 60-day regular 
legislative session that begins in just a little more than three 
months. A legislative interim committee discussed the issue at a 
hearing last month and watched a CNN report about how medical 
marijuana helped one child with her severe epilepsy.

The stumbling block for many state lawmakers is that the federal 
government is not on the bandwagon to legalize medical marijuana 
usage. Explanations of how states are handling the issue were front 
and center in a couple of presentations to the joint Senate and House 
health committees during last month's interim committee meetings.

So far 20 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for 
medical use. And President Obama's administration has said it will 
not try to criminally prosecute people who follow the laws in those 
states. But some reluctant legislators in West Virginia apparently 
would prefer a definitive green light from the federal government.

Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, is a physician and also vice 
chairman of the House Health Committee. He said he would like to "see 
the feds get on board with us. If the FDA were to say there is some 
medical reasons to use this and back us up, then I think state 
legalization is not an unreasonable thing."

Members of the Legislature's committees on health in both houses 
heard from Karmen Hanson, a health policy expert with the National 
Conference of State Legislatures, and Matt Simon, a lobbyist and 
analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, about how other states had 
handled legalizing marijuana for medical purposes during the 
September interim committee meetings.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairs the House Health Committee and 
he is sponsoring a resolution that calls for a study of this issue in 
West Virginia. He said the federal stance is a concern for some 
legislators. And as a retired pharmacist, he knows that many drugs 
have the capacity for abuse.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is also a physician and he has concerns 
about the possibility that legalized marijuana in this state could 
become a so-called "gateway drug" that leads individuals who use it 
to using other more dangerous drugs.

The most positive - and patient - legislative supporter of legalizing 
the use of marijuana for medical purposes is Delegate Mike Manypenny, 
D-Taylor. He admits it is a gradual education process and believes it 
will at least emerge from committee at the 2014 legislative session.

He realizes 2014 is an election year for all 100 members of the House 
of Delegates and half of the 34 members of the state Senate. He would 
like to see it come to the floor for a vote of the full membership at 
the next regular legislative session and said he is confident it can 
pass the Legislature no later than 2015.

Former state senator Walt Helmick of Pocahontas County, who is now 
the commissioner of agriculture in West Virginia, has been traveling 
around the state to share his desire to make the agriculture industry 
in this state a bigger operation. He told members of the Beckley 
Rotary Club last month that West Virginians consume about $7 billion 
worth of food each year but "not even half of $1 billion goes to 
agricultural efforts here."

Helmick is aware that West Virginia couldn't compete with the state 
of Idaho, which is No. 1 in white potatoes, nor North Carolina, which 
is No. 1 in sweet potatoes. He said he wants to move the state into a 
position where it has a "significant impact" on percentage of 
vegetables such as potatoes, broccoli or carrots consumed here.

One of his first plans to increase agricultural production in this 
state is to "set up educational plots" during the next growing 
season, which will be March, April and May of 2014. In addition to 
his plans to use prison inmates for this program, he plans to work 
with the state Department of Education to get young people involved 
in these agricultural efforts.

Another goal is to develop a program that involves inmates at the 
state's prisons. He said the largest state-owned farm adjoins the 
Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County about 18 miles 
south of Elkins. He wants the inmates there - the capacity is now 
about 1,200 - to become involved in programs to learn about 
agriculture and develop a trade that can become profitable.

About one of every five West Virginia residents - a total of some 
352,000 people statewide - are currently enrolled in the Supplemental 
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There are more than 47.7 million 
people nationwide who participate in the program but proposed 
reductions would remove about six million people from the program.

The House of Representatives voted last month to remove about six 
million people from the program but those cuts are not likely to 
survive the legislative process in Congress. The Democrat-controlled 
U. S. Senate has already passed its version of the farm bill with 
SNAP benefits, including a continuation of the 2009 provision to 
allow states with high unemployment rates, including West Virginia, 
to give food stamps to childless individuals without jobs.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom