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Legislation to legalize marijuana discussed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation to legalize marijuana use, especially for medical purposes, is being discussed again in West Virginia.

Today, sale of medical marijuana is legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C. Today, 30 percent of Americans live in states where marijuana is legal in some form.

On Nov. 6, popular votes in Colorado and Washington state legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Supporters of marijuana legislation in West Virginia back various reform laws they say could offer people medical help, create new state tax revenues, cut prison costs and enhance an industry already booming underground.

West Virginia's state prisons are becoming increasingly overcrowded and costly.

Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, said the bill he is backing in the Legislature focuses on medical, not recreational, uses of marijuana.

"I do support decriminalizing small amounts for people getting caught. It would reduce the impact on our prison system. But my main goal is to legalize the ability of doctors to recommend it for a patient for a chronic ailment."

Today, Manypenny said, "80 percent of our state's prison population is there directly or indirectly related to charges of substance abuse.

"Legalizing marijuana could also spur economic development, Manypenny said. "We could export it to other states that approve medical marijuana. Ohio and Pennsylvania may also be close to getting something passed."

Brad Douglas, the Department of Corrections' director of research and planning, did not return phone calls Friday asking how the state estimates costs, and jail times, resulting from arrests related to marijuana possession.

Financial benefits

Kaitlin L. Hillenbrand, a student at the West Virginia University College of Law, recently wrote a paper titled "State Deregulation of Marijuana Act. White Paper: A Bill Concerning the Decriminalization and Regulation of the Marijuana Industry."

In her paper, Hillenbrand says repealing the prohibition of marijuana will result in "numerous benefits to the state," including "over $72 million in savings and revenue in the first year, and that number will very likely increase each year. Law enforcement resources would free up to solve serious crimes."

Those benefits, Hillenbrand estimates, would include $29.6 million in revenues from a 6 percent sales tax on marijuana and taxpayer savings of $42.6 million by cutting marijuana arrests.

Hillenbrand also questions the effectiveness of marijuana arrests.

In 2011, one American was arrested every 42 seconds for marijuana possession. Yet marijuana use rates continued to rise, according to an FBI study.

On Nov. 15, Hillenbrand discussed her work about the legalization of marijuana with some members of the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Hillenbrand said she drafted a legislative bill, part of her paper, on behalf of Ken Robidoux -- a medicinal-marijuana patient originally from California who suffers from seizure disorders.

Hillenbrand wrote her paper for a class taught by former WVU President David C. Hardesty Jr.

"The bill decriminalizes marijuana and gives the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission regulatory authority over marijuana," she said.

Hillenbrand said she modeled her bill after those that passed in Colorado and Washington last month, a model bill by the Marijuana Policy Project and the West Virginia statute that ended alcohol prohibition in the state in June 1933.

Hillenbrand hopes that West Virginia residents who favor the legalization of marijuana for either medical and/or recreational purposes express their opinions to their legislators.

Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, is working with Hillenbrand.

Simon praised Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international organization of criminal-justice professionals founded in 1999 that criticizes "the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies."

According to its website, LEAP favors "a tight system of legalized regulation, which will effectively cripple the violent cartels and street dealers who control the current illegal market."

Simon visited Charleston to attend the Dec. 11 informational forum chaired by Manypenny in the Capitol's House of Delegates chamber.

"It is better to regulate and tax marijuana so that it is not sold by others who sell other drugs," Simon said during an interview.

"Today, there are 2.3 million Americans behind bars in prison, the highest rate in the world. And it hasn't worked to scare people out of marijuana use."

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton recently admitted the "drug war" policies they pursued were not effective.

And last week, an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner praised President Obama for saying federal agents would not arrest pot users in Washington and Colorado.

Paul Clancy, a physician from Spencer, and Aila Accad, president-elect of the West Virginia Nurses Association, also spoke at Manypenny's forum in support of approving medical marijuana.

Medical benefits

Simon said marijuana-based medicines can help people who face a variety of health problems, including cancer, nerve damage and pain, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.

"Opiates don't help as much with neuropathic pain. Marijuana also helps reduce peoples' dependencies on drugs like Lortab, Percodan and Oxycontin," Simon said.

Manypenny believes legalizing marijuana, at least for medical purposes, also could help the state's underfunded drug treatment programs.

"We should use these taxes to fund treatment programs for substance abuse in West Virginia, as well as prevention programs in our schools that are also underfunded."

Manypenny said his bill also would "alleviate pressure on our overcrowded prison system. Most of the states that have passed legislation to legalize marijuana have seen a decrease in actual substance abuse in their populations."

"The best treatment for opiate addition is medical marijuana," he said, pointing out that "only about 8 percent of the population becomes physically addicted" to that treatment.

Manypenny believes medical patients should have the option of trying drugs made from marijuana. "Some don't want to take opiates because they don't want to be addicted to them.

"I also introduced another bill to allow for home confinement, instead of imprisonment, for minor drug abuses," Manypenny said.

Hillenbrand pointed out that people who support legalizing marijuana do not necessarily approve of its use.

"Just as alcohol prohibition was repealed because people recognized that prohibition did not work, marijuana prohibition is ending because prohibition absolutely does not work."

Many people who oppose alcohol and marijuana prohibition do not advocate the use of either substance.

Marijuana is a thriving agricultural product in Appalachia, where its cultivation is a growing business in the poorest parts of the region.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported in a Dec. 4 article that federal, state and local law enforcement officers have already confiscated more than $1.5 billion worth of marijuana this year in central Appalachia.

Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, told the newspaper that aerial surveillance discovered nearly 770,000 plants in the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Today, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates the value of a mature marijuana plant is about $2,000.

"The Appalachian region, a haven for moonshiners during Prohibition, has a near-perfect climate for marijuana cultivation, plus remote forests that help growers camouflage their crops," the Herald-Leader reported.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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