Marijuana Legalization Discussed in West Virginia

Photo by Dalton Walker, W.Va. Press Association Explaining their views, from left, are Eric Johnson of the Charleston Police Department; Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; and John “Ed” Shemelya, national coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative.

CHARLESTON — Both proponents and opponents of marijuana legalization highlighted potential economic benefits — as well as possible unintended consequences — during a Friday panel discussion in Charleston.

The panel was part of Friday’s annual Associated Press Legislative Lookahead.

Danny Bragg, co-founder of West Virginia Green is the New Black and representative of Mountaineers for Marijuana; Lt. Eric Johnson with the Charleston Police Department; Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; John “Ed” Shemelya, national coordinator for the National Marijuana Initiative; and Jim Wilson, executive director of The Gatehouse in Elkins, a nonprofit start-up long-term residential treatment facility, all spoke about how the legalization of marijuana might affect the Mountain State if signed into law.

Potential Medical Benefits

Pushkin — who introduced a bipartisan bill that would decriminalize the personal use, growing and possession of marijuana by anyone over 21 years of age during the last legislative session — said due to the opioid epidemic plaguing both the nation and the state, as well as stories he has heard about the potential health benefits, he wants to foster further discussion of medical marijuana.

“After that bill (that would decriminalize marijuana) was introduced, what really influenced my feelings on medical marijuana were the phone calls, emails, letters, messages on social media that I received from people all over the state who are suffering,” Pushkin said. “That’s why I believe we should have the discussion about medical marijuana. … When you get a phone call from a veteran who came back from Iraq with a whole laundry list of drugs they were prescribed by their doctors and now they’ve replaced that with one drug that’s illegal, now they’re a criminal because they’re treating the ailments they’ve received, treating the injuries they’ve received in the way, and it’s hard to argue with that.”

Bragg — who founded West Virginia Green is the New Black, an organization that educates and promotes the potential cultural and economic benefits of marijuana legalization — echoed Pushkin’s sentiments.

“The most important thing for me is if medical marijuana can help someone. I have three kids, none of them have seizures, no (multiple sclerosis) — I’m very fortunate to not be dealing with that, but I have spoken to people that do,” Bragg said. “I’ve seen the people that are dealing with this, and when you see a child go from 500 seizures in a month to 10 or 15 after trying 13, 14, 15 different pharmaceuticals and nothing working, I don’t think it’s fair for us to stop that parent from being able to have the same opportunity here.”

While Wilson didn’t comment directly on the potential benefits of medical marijuana, he said it may seem like an advantage for the state to legalize marijuana but it could come with problems in disguise.

“I understand one thing, and that’s that all that glitters is not gold, and sometimes, if addiction is a disease — I believe that — it’s not the drug that determines whether someone’s an addict, it’s the relationship to the substance,” Wilson, who has been in long-term recovery since 1988, said. “People can have problems with anything. I don’t think that if it was legalized it would change the landscape of treatment. In treatment, we deal with the disease of addiction that isn’t specific to the drug.”

Law Enforcement Perspective

Johnson, who has over 26 years of law enforcement experience, said decriminalizing or outright legalizing marijuana could pose issues for police and West Virginia residents.

“I know from my law enforcement perspective that if marijuana continues to be illegal for both medical or recreational use, people are going to continue to use it, and I’ve seen over my career that the penalties for marijuana have declined,” Johnson said. “I have spoken to many, many people who are daily users of marijuana and they tell me that it is addictive. They tell me as an individual who has to smoke every day that it is addictive, so I ask, ‘Is it psychologically addictive only or is it physically addictive?’ And they tell me it’s both.”

Shemelya — who has 30 years of experience as a drug enforcement police officer in Appalachia and serves as the national coordinator for the National Marijuana Initiative, which functions to educate both the public and policy makers on issues surrounding marijuana — said marijuana legalization is not a good idea.

“Not only is West Virginia, but most of Appalachia, in the midst of a horrible opioid epidemic … and there’s one constant drug in this discussion, and that’s cannabis. You’re going to hear an argument that it’s going to cure your opioid issue, but that’s just not the case,” Shemelya said. “As I travel the country, I tell people this is the most dangerous drug out there. Cannabis is still the most widely used, and it’s the most misunderstood of all the drugs in America. … The THC levels are a completely different animal (than they used to be).”

Economic Diversification

Pushkin said West Virginia could reap the benefits of an industry already in existence if the state legalized marijuana and taxed it.

“Representatives in Colorado have not expressed interest in going back on laws or initiatives, and I can tell you with great certainty that they didn’t have a special session to produce a budget,” Pushkin said. “(Marijuana) is a multi-million dollar industry right now. It has been my entire lifetime, and we see zero revenue from that.”

Bragg said marijuana could serve as an industry that could help the state in the wake of decreased revenue from the coal industry.

“Currently, we don’t have an industry. A legalized cannabis industry is an industry that wouldn’t take money from schools. It’s not taking money away from county EMS systems. It’s creating new money and putting it into the system,” Bragg said. “With cuts, we aren’t generating revenue. We need an industry. Prohibition isn’t working. Prohibition hasn’t worked. The black market will fill the supply if a supply is taken away, and (marijuana) is going to be grown and be in the state regardless, one way or another.”

Concerns for Youth

Although everyone on the panel agreed young people shouldn’t be targeted by the legalization of marijuana, Johnson said such action could still pave the way for giving the state’s youth the wrong idea.

“We tell our children not to use drugs, then we as adults in society make decisions to basically let them know that, ‘OK, weed is OK, it’s OK under these circumstances initially for medical marijuana, and once we allow that to sink in, it’s OK for recreational use,'” Johnson said. “Why tell our children drugs are bad, and then legalize marijuana in any shape or form?”

Shemelya said in his experience, he has seen marijuana legalization adversely affect young people.

“I can tell you what is going to happen based on what we’ve seen. … I can guarantee that the usage rates of your young people are going to go up. That’s the area that’s most concerning. … When states go down this route, either through ballot referendum or legislative intent, as well-intended as the statute is, the unintended consequences are youth usage rates go through the roof,” Shemelya said. “The vast majority of this market is not smoking product, it’s edibles — and if you’ll look at who the target is, it’s your children. … That’s the concern about this.”


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