Today, West Virginia lawmakers are taking their first look at a new bill to legalize and regulate adult-use marijuana. Democrats introduced the bill two weeks ago, but have so far only garnered support from within the party. Now that the bill is in multiple committees, it’s unlikely to see a full House vote this year. However, lawmakers who support the legislation hope it can at least begin the conversation on adult-use legalization in West Virginia.
Virginia Democrats Want to Let Communities Chart Their Own Course on Cannabis
Cannabis legalization is becoming a highly partisan issue in West Virginia. At the start of the first legislative session of the year, House Democrats introduced HB2331. In many ways, the bill is similar to adult-use legislation introduced or passed in other states. It permits adults 21 and over to possess cannabis for personal use, regulates a production and retail industry through the Bureau of Health and seeks to earn revenue via taxation.
But Virginia Democrats have introduced one twist into the boilerplate approach to legalization, a “county option”. Signing HB2331 into law wouldn’t automatically legalize cannabis across West Virginia. Rather, it would allow counties to elect to allow production and sales in that county. Conversely, counties could elect not to permit the industry. The “county option” approach resembles the authority many adult-use states give to municipalities to restrict or ban cannabis businesses from operating in their jurisdictions.
Appealing to the principle of government of, by and for the people, Del. Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha) said lawmakers should be asking what the people want. “We want to have this conversation to find out what the people are for,” Pushkin told reporters. “That matters to me more than what the governor or the speaker or the president wants.”
High-Ranking Republic Opposition Will Likely Block Progress on Legalization Bill
But West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, all Republicans, stand strongly opposed to adult-use legalization. And what they want is to keep West Virginia a medical-only state.
Among lawmakers in a state that is in many ways just beginning to look at legal adult-use, the debate centers around a familiar opposition between public safety and revenue. Proponents of legalization say they don’t want West Virginia to miss out on one of the country’s growth industries. Those opposed say they’re concerned about drug addiction, underage consumption, and impaired driving.
Speaking on the House floor, Del. Mike Bates (D-Raleigh) said “West Virginia is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the cannabis industry,” which he described as the “single greatest economic opportunity West Virginia has.”
But Republican delegates spoke against the bill. Del. Larry Kump (R-Berkeley) said “West Virginia already has drug problems and alcohol abuse problems. We don’t need to go down that road.” New research shows that cannabis can actually help people suffering from addiction to hard drugs, prescription opioids, and alcohol. Furthermore, a recent analysis of consumer purchasing in California suggests that younger people who consume cannabis are decreasing their consumption of alcohol and tobacco.
Other delegates opposed to adult-use legalization spoke out about drug-impaired driving. Del. Joe Ellington (R-Mercer), who chairs the Health Committee, called Colorado an “experimental” state before claiming it has problems with impaired drivers “and other problems with minors.”
Legalization Bill Faces Long Odds in Committee
Opposition to West Virginia Democrat’s adult-use bill means it likely won’t make it out of committee this year. Currently, the judiciary, finance and health committees are all considering the bill. HB 2331 would have to clear all three committees before it could come to a full vote on the House floor.