The 2017 legislative regular session has concluded, and West Virginia has now joined 27 other states and D.C. by approving a medical cannabis regulatory program. And, the Mountain State finally embraced its heritage and expanded the ongoing industrial hemp regulatory program to the entire state.

The West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act (aka Senate Bill 386) was signed into law by Governor Justice on April 19. The movement to liberalize the regulation of Cannabis sativa, an ancient plant known to have medicinal properties for thousands of years, has grown steadily for several years.

Former Delegate Mike Manypenny (D) first introduced similar legislation in 2013, and non-profits such as WV NORML and Compassion West Virginia helped build a movement. Stalwart legislators have been essential, most notably former Delegate Bill Flanigan, who delivered a powerful speech on the House floor in April 2016 that chronicled his own journey as a cancer patient needing relief from chemotherapy.

Despite the relentless work of the advocacy groups, serendipity played a part, as well. The Senate, as in years past, introduced and passed SB 386, yet it barely survived the initial Committee vote (squeaking out 6-5 in the Senate Health Committee) this time. Again, just like in years past, the bill moved to the House of Delegates, where it was expected to die in Committee, as this legislation had no support among the Speaker of the House and the rest of the majority leadership.

This time, however, a bold legislator (Delegate Mike Folk) deployed a little-used parliamentary procedure to force SB 386 out of its Committees and onto the House floor for a vote—where it passed 54-40.

The Senate bill was amended significantly by the House following the discharge maneuver, to the point where many advocates were quite disappointed by the final outcome. The law sets up a dispensary system under a regulatory program to be administered by the Bureau of Public Health—and more fully determined by a 16-member expert panel appointed by the Governor. Identification cards for patients are anticipated in 2018, and the cannabis dispensary licenses are expected by 2019.

Currently, the program is restricted to oral and topical formulations (like many of the southeastern states); however, the Senate was not happy with the outcome, and intends to address the bill’s shortcomings next year.

The state Legislature also expanded the existing industrial hemp regulatory program from a system where potential cultivators must do so in conjunction with an “institution of higher learning” to a system where all West Virginia residents are free to apply for a license. This is not an insignificant process, requiring multiple applications to state and federal authorities, background checks and fingerprints, and a site visit.

Due process and regulatory restrictions aside, it is very exciting to have both a medical cannabis and a full-blown residential hemp program in a state that could use the revenue, income, and jobs. It’s been a long strange trip thus far, but economic prosperity in West Virginia potentially awaits!

— Erik is a resident of Berkeley County (WV) and the co-founder of Compassion West Virginia, West Virginia’s only non-profit dedicated to the advancement of medical cannabis programs in the Mountain State.

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