CHARLESTON — Could legalizing marijuana help solve West Virginia’s growing opioid epidemic? Moreover, would making marijuana legal cure the state’s ailing budget?
Those were perhaps the most thought-provoking and controversial questions that emerged from last Friday’s panel on the legalization of marijuana, which took place as part of the W.Va. Legislative Lookahead in Charleston.
Moderated by The Inter-Mountain’s executive editor Matt Burdette, the panel included Danny Bragg, who started the company West Virginia Green is the New Black; Lt. Eric Johnson, a member of the Charleston Police Department’s Metro Drug Unit; Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; John “Ed” Shemelya, a 30-year veteran with the state police and the national coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative; and Jim Wilson, executive director of Gatehouse in Elkins.
Pushkin began the discussion by saying that one of the key reasons he chose to run for the state legislature was because of the drug epidemic.
“We’re in worse shape than we were 40 years ago when we headed down this path with our current drug policies,” Pushkin said. “We lead the nation in drug overdose deaths … all of these issues that are related to the disease of addiction. In opioid and heroin abuse, we lead the nation.”
Pushkin, who identified himself as a person who’s in long-term recovery, said although it was never his intent to become a champion of the legalization of marijuana, he became one during the last legislative session as the Legislature struggled to pass a budget.
“Last year, when we weren’t able to pass a budget during the 60-day session and we had to come back for a special session and we were faced with the hard decision of, do we drastically raise taxes or do we drastically cut programs that could hurt a lot of people … when we were faced with those two choices, I introduced a bill that would have decriminalized marijuana and created like a tax credit program where people could have purchased a stamp for like $500 a year, which would allow them to possess up to a certain amount of marijuana,” Pushkin said. “Was I under any impression that the bill was going to go anywhere? Absolutely not.”
Pushkin noted that he has received phone calls, emails and messages on social media from people all across the state who are suffering from the effects of chemotherapy, Parkinson’s disease and more.
“These are people who are looking for a remedy that is in their view a lot safer than prescription drugs,” Pushkin said. “That’s why I thought we should maybe have the discussion about medical marijuana; half the states in the country have some form of legal marijuana, mostly for medicinal purposes. When you get a phone call from a veteran who came back from Iraq with a whole laundry list of drugs they were prescribed — and now they’re replacing it with one drug that is illegal, marijuana, now they’re a criminal.”
Although Shemelya agreed that West Virginia is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, he feels legalizing marijuana would only cause more trouble.
“We are tasked with looking at the harms that marijuana is causing as a direct result of the medicalization,” Shemelya said. “I can tell you what is happening based on what we’ve seen. What you can expect is the usage rates of young people is going to go up.”
He said currently, the Mountain State is 41st in marijuana usage for teens ages 12-17; 31st for 18- to 25-year-olds; and 36th for ages 26 and above.
“That’s what’s most concerning is when states go down this route through ballot referendum or legislative intent, as well-intended as the statute is, the unintended consequences are usage rates go through the roof,” Shemelya said. “Teen usage rates are going to continue to climb.”
Shemelya also felt legalizing marijuana would not cure the opioid epidemic.
“You’re also going to be hearing the argument that it’s going to be a revenue cash cow; that’s not the case,” he said. “We need to research cannabis, but it needs to go through the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). I know that’s a longer more tedious process, but the potential of the drug needs to be explored that way.”
Johnson, the bureau chief of the Charleston PD, cautioned that once marijuana is legalized, that decision is “irreversible.”
“From my perspective, when there is a push for marijuana, it begins with a push for medical, then a push for recreational marijuana,” Johnson said. “I just want to say that the decisions we make can be irreversible.”
Johnson also countered the commonly made claim that marijuana is not addictive.
“What I will tell you is I have spoken to many, many people who are daily users of marijuana and they tell me it’s addictive,” Johnson said. “So, I ask is it psychologically addictive or physically addictive? And they tell me it’s both.”
Wilson, who is an addictions counselor and also in long-term recovery, said he believes it’s not the drug that determines whether someone is addicted, but rather the person’s relationship to that drug.
“I don’t think that if marijuana were legalized it would change the landscape of treatment because I think that in treatment, we deal with the disease of addiction, not specific to the drug, and I think it would be something that each individual would have to work out for himself or herself,” Wilson said.
Bragg, the founder of West Virginia Green is the New Black, said he’s motivated to push for the legalization of marijuana because he thinks it would function as a solution to the opioid epidemic.
“What’s happened is I’ve seen what the opioid epidemic has done — and the lack of hope and the lack of economic prosperity, the loss of the coal industry, and what that has done by losing the coal severance tax which paid for so much of our county revenue, and that money’s not coming back and that’s one of the reasons I started researching legalized cannabis,” Bragg said. “One of the goals I would have in a legalized cannabis industry in our state is that we could be a magnate for research. We have some of the highest depression rates, some of the highest obesity rates, some of the highest drug overdose death rates, anxiety, so many different problems that we have in this state that there is medical research that shows there could be positives there.”
In states that have legalized medical marijuana, there is a 24.8 percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths, Bragg contended.
“Opioid addiction rates are off the chart, and it is literally destroying this state,” Bragg said. “I believe one of the reasons those [overdose] numbers are going down in states that have legalized it is because people are getting another option. It’s not a perfect option, it’s not a perfect drug, but it does seem to help a lot of people, especially with pain.”
“The most important thing to me is if marijuana can help somebody … I don’t think it’s fair for us to stop that parent (of a sick child) from being able to have that same opportunity here,” Bragg added, also saying that legalizing marijuana could increase job creation, spur economic activity and heighten the number of people moving to the state.
Pushkin said that in states where marijuana is decriminalized, there are fewer traffic fatalities, as well as a 25 percent drop in fatalities due to overdose of heroin or opioids.
He also agreed that a lot of money could be made from legalizing marijuana.
“It is a multi-million-dollar industry in West Virginia,” Pushkin said. “There’s a lot of money being made off the growing and selling of marijuana in the state and we see absolutely zero revenue from that.”
Shemelya, however, called marijuana “the most dangerous drug in America.”
“What makes it so dangerous is that it’s the most misunderstood drug in America,” he said.
Pushkin pushed back, saying no one has ever died of a marijuana overdose.
“There are a whole lot of legal drugs that are in people’s medicine cabinets right now that their kids could get into that could kill them,” Pushkin said. “This drug won’t do that. If it helps alleviate somebody’s pain, if it helps some last days of people’s lives to be more comfortable, they should have that option.”