bluefield — The possibility of having medical cannabis businesses in Mercer County is back on the table.
After listening to Del. John Shott (R-Mercer County) explain the history of the bill in the Legislature that allows the operations and why he supported it, the Mercer County Board of Health has agreed to once again reconsider the issue.
In March, the board voted unanimously to deny any request for a medical cannabis business to locate anywhere in the county. Then in September, the board took no action on a request from City of Bluefield officials to reconsider after a dispensary business wanted to locate in Bluefield.
During a discussion after that request, several board members expressed concerns, including cost of the product, quality control and the potential for abuse.
But after Shott’s presentation, which included emphasizing the proven health benefits of the treatment, board members agreed to reconsider.
Board President Dr. Randy Maxwell noted the board has three new members since the March action was taken and when the decision not to reconsider was made in September.
“We will definitely take it under consideration,” he said. “We will talk about it and revisit it.”
Shott told the board when the bill first came up during the 2017 legislative session, the Senate sent it to the House “unannounced,” with no communication about it between the two houses.
Shott used the analogy of a Halloween trick when someone places a bag full of dog poop on your porch, sets the bag on fire, knocks on the door and runs away.
“You have a flaming bag of excrement to deal with,” he said, explaining that the Senate version was too broad, had no real details or limitations in what form the drug could be used, allowing it to be smoked or put in food.
“The bill would have been highly deficient, but the votes were there to pass it,” he said.
Not only that, in an unusual move, the bill was allowed to bypass tweaking in committees and was heading to a first reading in the full House the same week it was sent over from the Senate.
“Our leadership, including the speaker (of the House) … were caught off guard,” he said. “We were unprepared to deal with that because it rarely happens.”
Shott, who is retiring this year, was head of the Judiciary Committee and he along with some colleagues asked for the first reading to be delayed until the following week so it could be reviewed and changed to make it more palatable.
“They allowed us the weekend to work on it,” he said, and it ended up being a “much less objectionable bill” with a lot of sanitization, including guidance and restrictions.
In a close vote, the bill passed 52-49, but Shott said some additional amendments also passed, by 72-28.
“It’s not a perfect bill,” he said. “But we looked at all the other states that have it and incorporated the best provisions and the most accountability to the bill.”
Shott said the bill ended up being a “really good product” and there are people he knows who could benefit from it, including a testimonial on the House floor related to cancer treatment and how it helped.
The testimonial had a “great impact” on what happened in the House, he said.
Shott said Mercer County is the only county so far of those that have considered allowing medical cannabis businesses to reject it. The request has not come up yet in most counties in the state.
One concern he has is that people who need it will drive to Raleigh County, where two growers have already been approved, before the product is actually available in January.
“They will have the ability to get that product there,” he said. “There is a need and people will do it.”
A survey has shown people, even those in the 56 and up age range, will drive at least 25 miles and some 50 miles or more to fill a prescription, he said.
Shott said he was surprised that 28 percent of those who responded to the survey were 56 and older.
“That tells me people will drive to get this product if it is not available in Mercer County,” he told board members, and that may include the elderly, people with cancer and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.
“Have we really accomplished anything positive if we don’t allow them access to the product under supervision?” he asked, pointing out the medication is under a doctor’s care and any physician who prescribes it must first be trained in its proper usage.
Another survey was sent to doctors in the state, he said, and showed 1,500 were interested in being authorized to prescribe the product.
Although it was unclear how many were from Mercer County, he said at least 45 were and up to 88.
Shott said he knows the economics of the medical cannabis businesses are important, “but I don’t think they are nearly as important as the benefits.”
At this point, 285 applications for dispensaries, processors or growers have been accepted by the state, he said, and two in Mercer County, if the board changes the March decision.
That point was made by Bluefield officials, citing the jobs created and tax revenue, in addition to all of the health benefits.
Shott said people who have serious medical issues benefit from it and he does not want to see them drive to another county or get it on the street illegally where they “have no idea what they are getting.”
“At least this is one way (to prevent that), with a regulated system of having some control over those factors, including the strength and quality of the product,” he said. “I think it is important for a segment of Mercer County. It will be here regardless.”
Shott said 34 states have passed the legislation allowing medical cannabis and “no state has attempted to repeal it.”
When asked by a board member if he would take it himself if he needed it and it was prescribed, Shott replied, “Yes, I would.”
Maxwell said the board will discuss it again and if it is approved this time, it would go to the Mercer County Commission, where the board’s decision can be rejected.
However, Maxwell said, the commission cannot make the decision. They can either reject the board’s decision or do nothing.