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Opioid treatment bill amendment triggers House floor debate on cannabis

MORGANTOWN — A routine Thursday House floor session, with no bills up for a vote, was unexpectedly enlivened with a protracted debate on the merits and hazards of marijuana – sparked by a proposed amendment to strike three words from a bill.

HB 2922 was on second reading, the amendment stage. The bill deals with people convicted of misdemeanor offenses involving addictive drugs and would allow a judge to order the offender to be evaluated for and enrolled in a drug treatment program prior to and as a condition of dismissal.

Delegate Sammi Brown

The reference to specific drugs includes the phrase “other than marijuana” and Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, proposed the amendment to remove the phrase. He has also regularly opposed medical cannabis legislation.

A person who has a problem with marijuana, he said, should have the same access to treatment as those hooked on oxycodone or heroin. The bill is intended to expand a judge’s discretion and this phrase limits that discretion.

Both bill sponsors opposed the amendment. Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, said, “We have such a crisis in this state from opioids and heroin” and the state shouldn’t be using limited drug treatment resources for marijuana. “This is a step in the wrong direction.”

Delegate Brandon Steele

Co-sponsor Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, talked about medical cannabis and said, “We cannot stigmatize an item that may help the people of West Virginia.”

Delegate Terry Waxman, R-Harrison, sided with Fast. She cited a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration video in which opioid addicts cite marijuana as their gateway drug.

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, followed the same reasoning. An offender addicted to meth or opioids, who was convicted on a marijuana charge and used marijuana as a gateway drug wouldn’t be entitled to treatment without the amendment.

Delegate Terry Waxman

Delegate Buck Jennings, R-Preston, cited his experience as a paramedic, administering Narcan to overdose patients. And now kids are vaping THC and going to the hospital. The amendment tells kids it’s not OK to use marijuana, to put it in a vape pen and inhale it.

Amendment opponents cited various problems with it: asserting marijuana isn’t addictive; that the amendment might conflict with marijuana misdemeanor expungement laws enacted last year; that there are no medical treatment protocols for marijuana use.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said some people may have used marijuana as a gateway drug, but far more have tried it without moving on to more harmful drugs. “I think the effect of the amendment would really overburden the drug courts.”

Opposition was bipartisan. Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh and a former county prosecutor, said the amendment would keep people hooked inside the criminal justice system who don’t need to be there.

And, he said, it would contradict the Legislature’s policy trend over the past several years – moving from criminalizing marijuana to recognizing its medicinal value.  “If we adopt this, we’re sending mixed signals. It’s time to quit stigmatizing it. … We’ve got bigger problems to take care of.”

The amendment failed in a 30-68 vote. Locally, the vote followed party lines, with the three Republicans voting for it and the nine Democrats opposing it.

HB 2922 is up for third reading and passage on Friday, Jan. 17.

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