Standing before a field of thigh-high hemp plants last week, a pair of candidates running for seats in the West Virginia House of Delegates previewed a marijuana legalization bill they plan to introduce if elected in November.
Rusty Williams and Chris Yeager, Democrats running in West Virginia House Districts 35 and 14, respectively, announced the planned legislation, titled “The Normalization of Cannabis Act,” in a video streamed Friday on Facebook from Yeager’s hemp farm in Mason County.
“I think that this bill is a great draft,” said Yeager, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and owner of Appalachian Cannabis Co., which makes products from CBD derived from his farm’s hemp. “It gives us a starting point.”
The proposal is being supported by WV Can’t Wait, a political advocacy group that asks candidates to sign a pledge to reject corporate campaign donations and sign on to an array of policy positions, including broadband internet for all, infrastructure investment, small-business support, a workers bill of rights and “full cannabis legalization.”
Williams, who became involved in medical marijuana legalization efforts after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, according to his campaign website, helped successfully advocate for the state’s medical cannabis bill, signed into law in 2017. He described his new proposal in Friday’s video as “the first piece of comprehensive cannabis legislation that we intend to introduce should we both be fortunate enough to win in November.”
A copy of the draft bill wasn’t immediately provided by WV Can’t Wait organizers, who instead pointed Marijuana Moment to a bulleted list of provisions, included in full at the end of this article.
“People hear the term ‘comprehensive cannabis’ and want to know what that means,” Williams said on the live stream. “What that means is this bill will decriminalize the cultivation, production and personal use of cannabis for all West Virginia adults over 21.”
Under the proposal, all adults 21 and over could grow up to 12 cannabis plants for personal use. While the bill would establish a “framework for taxation of commercial sales,” the candidates stressed that big business isn’t their goal. Instead, the proposal would allow so-called micro permits, which would license small, vertically integrated marijuana businesses.
“One of the major criticisms we’ve had with the Medical Cannabis Act is that the entire industry was going to be run by ten companies,” Williams said. “When we end prohibition, we have got to make sure that we clear a path for small businesses and small farmers to get into the game and participate in this industry, and that’s exactly what micro permitting will do.”
Permits would be discounted 50 percent to applicants convicted of past nonviolent cannabis crimes, Williams said, “as a means of restorative justice. I can’t stress it enough, here in West Virginia we have got a lot of wrongs to right when it comes to cannabis.”
The prospective bill would also expunge the records of nonviolent cannabis convictions dating back to 1937, when prohibition first began, Williams said.
“Not only will we release people from jail who are wrongfully incarcerated for possessing or using a plant, but this bill also provides for transitional services for people released, so we can help them with schooling, education, housing, anything that we can help them with to get them back into society, which is where they should be in the first place,” he said.
BREAKING: WV Candidates to Introduce Nation’s Strongest Cannabis Bill at Mason County Hemp Farm
WHEN: 12:30-1:00pm on Friday, Sept 18th
— WV Can't Wait (@WVCantWait) September 17, 2020
The bill would contain provisions to protect Second Amendment rights for cannabis consumers and guard against civil asset forfeiture, the campaigns said, though they didn’t go into details on how those measures would avoid likely conflicts with federal law.
A number of other proposals are included in the candidates’ plan. Among them are provisions that would remove cannabis from pre-employment drug screenings, raise the THC limit on industrial hemp to 3 percent—10 times the federal government’s limit—and allow medical marijuana patients and caregivers to cultivate small amounts of cannabis at home.
“With the medical cannabis program, we have a foundation in place,” Yeager said. “This allows us to build on that foundation and allows us to become in line with some of the country’s most progressive, I think, cannabis legislation.”
Yeager noted that West Virginia has “led the nation for the better part of a decade in prescription drug overdoses resulting in death,” adding that he lost two family members to overdoses. “Patient access, getting folks access to a nonaddictive, nonlethal alternative—that’s at the core of why I’m doing this,” he said.
Also speaking at the event was Hilary Turner, a Democrat trying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV).
“I support full cannabis and hemp legalization across our nation and right here in West Virginia,” Turner said, emphasizing the economic benefits of legalization. Not only could tax revenue help fund education and infrastructure, she said, but the plan’s provisions to streamline state hemp regulations would also be a boon to small farmers.
“My family’s had a farm in Greenbrier County for six generations, and we would love to be able to grow industrial hemp,” Turner said, “but the current regulations are so burdensome that it makes it really hard for small family farms to just get started.”
Turner ended her proposal with an appeal to personal freedom.
“At the end of the day, no one should be arrested or put in jail because they chose to use or grow a plant that grows naturally out of the ground,” she said said. “I believe that that is oppressive and it goes against our American values of liberty.”
Read the summary of the West Virginia cannabis bill provided by the campaigns below:
The Normalization of Cannabis Act
This bill decriminalizes the cultivation, production, and personal use of cannabis in West Virginia for adults over the age of 21.
• Removes cannabis from schedule 1
• Expunges the records of all non-violent cannabis offenses dating back to 1937
• Provides for transitional services for persons released from incarceration for non-violent cannabis offenses
• Allows adults to cultivate 12 cannabis plants for personal use
• Establishes framework for taxation of commercial sales
• Creates micro permits for vertically integrated small businesses
• Allows a 50% reduction in micro permitting fees for folks who’ve been convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses
• Amends industrial hemp act by removing unfriendly business restrictions
• Removes the provision requiring WV farmers to submit to criminal background checks before growing hemp
• Changes hemp ‘licenses’ to ‘permits’
• Allows 36 plant cultivation of hemp for personal use or processing where no remuneration takes place
• Increases the allowable level of THC in industrial hemp to 3%
• Allows patients and caregivers to cultivate small amounts of medical cannabis
• Removes cannabis from pre-employment drug screenings
• Protects the 2nd amendment rights for WV cannabis consumers
• Addresses civil asset forfeiture
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak