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Awarding of Cannabis Cultivation Permits Is Progress

Recently, the West Virginia Office of Medical Cannabis awarded 10 successful companies with permits to cultivate cannabis as a legal medicine in the state. It was a long-awaited step for the state program created by the 2017 Medical Cannabis Act, which restored the right to use cannabis and its extracts for patients who suffer from a limited set of approved medical conditions.

I say “restored” because herbal cannabis medicines have been used throughout human history, and were still a mainstay of American apothecaries when my grandparents were kids. The predecessors of today’s drug companies all formulated medicines with it, until cannabis was outlawed by the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. Named after what was then an unrecognized Mexican slang term, its passage was driven by alarmingly racist rhetoric, and was opposed by the American Medical Association.

With the hindsight of modern science, the tide of reversing this prohibition was inevitable. There are many good reasons that cannabis has been used as a medicine for much longer than it has been forbidden. It will not be for everyone, however. Patients must be approved by their physicians as qualifying, and then register with the OMC to obtain an ID card as a legal medical cannabis patient. Doctors themselves must first take a training course about medical cannabis and its regulations prior to approving a patient’s eligibility.

The doctor will write only a recommendation, not a prescription, as the latter is prohibited by the “Schedule 1” status of marijuana under the U.S. Controlled Substance Act, a designation that has never been scientifically valid.

It’s important that municipalities, employers and healthcare providers across the state recognize that legal access to cannabis is now a legitimate public health matter. Patients use cannabis while fighting pain and chronic disease, typically when other medications have been found ineffective or are themselves dangerously toxic and addictive. Nowhere is the impact of overusing pharmaceuticals more evident than here in West Virginia, and cannabis is part of the solution.

Research shows that in states with legal cannabis, patients use fewer opioids and there are significantly reduced numbers of fatal overdoses. Federal prohibition has stubbornly prevented clinical studies to evaluate cannabis as a medicine, even though millions of Americans use it to improve their quality of life and ability to maintain gainful employment. Sadly, folks have been forced to break the law to even try it. The black market is thriving, and this won’t change until legal options are both safe and affordable.

Awarding cultivation licenses is a first step, but there remain many obstacles to a successful program.

Only allowing 10 growers is likely to be one of them. Cannabis is a perishable crop, and entire harvests can suffer failures. Such limited participation also favors wealthy corporations, headquartered out of state, with broader market aspirations than simply helping the communities of West Virginia. This is not to disparage companies for building national brands, whose experience and capital should help ensure a stable start to the program here.

Nonetheless, adding an additional level of smaller sized growers would provide greater participation by local ownership, maximizing local economic benefit. It would add diversity to the varieties of cannabis and products produced, putting downward pressure on prices paid by patients.

Prices will be a problem. Strict rules for security, accountability and product purity greatly add to the expense of this business, making it difficult for legal cannabis to compete with unregulated street weed. On top of that, lawmakers in Charleston apparently view patients with serious conditions as a source of revenue to extract, since they imposed an unconscionable 10% additional gross tax on sales — something that would never be applied to pharmaceutical medicines.

People do want to be law abiding. The legal cannabis industry will normalize out of these growing pains in due time — as long as our communities can see past the “reefer madness” programming that most of us grew up with. We need to drop the stigma against those who use or provide medical cannabis. It is a natural medicine that is incredibly safe to try. Taking too much can be highly distressing, but is otherwise extraordinarily safe compared to other drugs in your medicine cabinet. It will come in many non-smoked forms such as liquid medicine droppers, pills and topical creams, as well as packaged dried flower. Patients shouldn’t be intimidated to ask their doctors to help them consider cannabis, and if necessary, to encourage them to learn more about the science.

When dispensaries open up over the course of next year, they should be welcomed without fear and prejudice. Entrepreneurs entering this field are taking big risks, and those who put emphasis on patient education and service, as well as best products, will rise to the top. Most importantly, cannabis patients are just regular people in your family and neighborhood. They work the same jobs, worship at the same churches, and cheer for their kids from the same bleachers. Even if only a subset of West Virginians need legal cannabis, we can all celebrate the awarding of cultivation permits as a landmark in reclaiming our rights to a plant that was cherished by our ancestors and is supported by modern medical science.

Dr. Gerdeman is a neuroscientist and college professor with recognized expertise in the pharmacology and physiology of cannabis. He has educated and advised physicians and policy makers on medical cannabis for over 20 years, and co-founded one of the first legal medical cannabis companies in the state of Florida. He lives in Follansbee and is co-founder of ECS Partners, LLC, which has applied to own and operate a medical cannabis dispensary in Weirton.

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