By Lexi Browning
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The probability and potential consequences of West Virginia’s Legislature legalizing marijuana this year brought out vastly differing opinions Friday at the 2017 AP Press Legislative Lookahead.
A panel consisting of W.Va. Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; John “Ed” Shemelya, national coordinator of National Marijuana Initiative; Jim Wilson, executive director of The Gatehouse in Elkins; Danny Bragg of WV Green is the New Black; and Lt. Eric Johnson of the Charleston Police Department, discussed marijuana with more than 40 members of the state’s media at the AP’s annual preview for the state’s annual legislative session. Matt Burdette, executive editor of The Inter-Mountain in Elkins, moderated the discussion.
The marijuana panel was the first of four discussions on the day.
Del. Pushkin said the state’s substance abuse epidemic as well as his personal experiences dealing with long-term recovery issues inspired him to run for office in 2014. Pushkin said he proposed the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016 to promote conversation on the possibility of collecting revenue from the legal marijuana industry.
“[Marijuana] is bought and sold all over West Virginia, but it’s not taxed because it’s not legal,” Pushkin said. “What influenced my feelings on medical marijuana were the messages I received from constituents who are undergoing chemo or have children suffering from seizures. They need a remedy.”
Lt. Johnson advised against legalizing marijuana even for researching purposes. Johnson, who served on the drug unit, said the majority of addicts he encountered started abusing substances after using marijuana.
“There are a lot of dangling carrots with this vote,” Johnson said. “We need to look beyond the dollars and look at the long term effects with financial hardship, families and employees. …”
For Danny Bragg, a Marshall University graduate and co-founder of West Virginia Green is the New Black, said the desire to present an alternative substance to combat opioid usage was personal after witnessing his ex-wife’s struggle with addiction after she was prescribed percocet after a caesarian-section.
“My ex-wife is on her fourth rehab stint,” Bragg said. “Opioid regulations kicked in and pushed her to purchase Percocet at street value and then she turned to heroin. When you have that shoulder surgery or knee replacement, is marijuana your safest option? Maybe not, but opioids have data, and they’re destroying this state.”
Bragg said evidence provided by states that have legalized marijuana showed it as a healthier alternative for those who take psychoactive prescriptions for anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders.
A legal cannabis industry, Bragg argued, could provide up to 18,000 jobs and combat the state’s high unemployment rate.
“What I’d recommend is research. Research what you’re hearing,” Bragg said. “If there’s a potential economic value, let’s research. Concerning marijuana regulation, the reason we know what’s in Oxycodone is because we regulate it. We’re 15th nationally in marijuana arrests. … We’re pushing too hard against the wrong drug.”
Jim Wilson, executive director of The Gatehouse rehabilitative center in Elkins, said his experience as a counselor who has been involved with recovery since 1988 heavily influenced his hesitancy to support legalizing cannabis. Wilson advised exercise extreme caution with any substance, particularly if one has a history or family history with addiction.
“All that glitters is not gold,” Wilson said. “Sometimes, if addiction is a disease – and it very much is – it’s not the drug that determines if someone is an addict or not. The relationship to the substance determines addiction. … It’s like alcohol: one in 10 have an issue with it. There are always some who will always have an issue with it.”