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Holder energizes W.Va. marijuana supporter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia legislator who introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in some cases earlier this year thinks recent developments on the national level will increase chances for success here.

On Aug. 29, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice will allow states to legalize the use of marijuana, if sales are regulated carefully. Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington state agreed to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical uses.

"I think that has taken down some of the obstacles that some of our legislators had about passing a bill here in West Virginia," Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, said this week.

Manypenny has been a leading advocate in West Virginia for the legalization of the medical use of marijuana, and introduced a bill to do that.

"Some of the naysayers -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- were afraid of passing legislation to legalize medical marijuana when someone might be prosecuted by the federal government, including doctors who recommend or prescribe marijuana, as well as dispensers who sell it," Manypenny said.

"I think this [Holder's announcement] is a good opening for things to proceed, especially after Dr. Sanjay Gupta came out and supported us," he said.

Gupta, a neurosurgeon who is CNN's chief medical correspondent, opposed the medical use of marijuana as recently as 2009 in a Time magazine article, but said he's changed his mind. He now believes marijuana is far less dangerous than prescription painkillers, including morphine and oxycodone.

"Most of these medications don't work very well," Gupta said in "Weed" -- his recently released documentary about marijuana that was aired by CNN.

"Most frightening to me is that someone dies in the United States every 19 minutes from a prescription-drug overdose, mostly accidental," Gupta recently said. "It is a horrifying statistic. As much as I searched, I could not find a documented case of death from marijuana overdose."

West Virginia legislators will hold a hearing on the marijuana issue later this month. The Joint Committee on Health, co-chaired by Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, will conduct the hearing at the Capitol on Sept. 25, as well as a follow-up hearing in December.

Supporters of Manypenny's bill include the West Virginia Nurses Association and physicians Dr. Dan Foster, a former state senator from Charleston, and Dr. Paul Clancy, an emergency physician in Spencer.

Marijuana can help many people with medical troubles, Manypenny believes, including children with life epilepsy. He referred to an Eastern Panhandle family that has taken a child back and forth between Colorado and West Virginia for treatment. "Those kids usually don't live more than five years," he said.

Speakers at the Sept. 25 meeting will include Karmen Hamson, a representative from Colorado on the National Conference of State Legislatures, who has become a specialist on medical marijuana laws across the country, and Matt Simon, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project and a West Virginia University graduate.

Manypenny said Simon "will discuss how the bill I introduced will regulate medical marijuana within the borders of West Virginia."

In an interview with the Gazette-Mail, Simon called Holder's announcement "a big development. It adds clarity to state legislators who want to reform state marijuana laws and make sure their efforts won't be thwarted by federal prosecutors.

"It will clarify the situations in the 20 states that have already made medical marijuana legal and for the two states that have also made marijuana legal for adult recreational use," Simon said. "For people who live in the other 28 states [including West Virginia], it gives their state legislators more confidence they have the authority to change marijuana laws.

"The message from the administration seems to be that, as long as states regulate their marijuana programs the right way, there will not be federal interference."

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling and released in January on the Marijuana Policy Project website, found state voters favor reform legislation by 53 percent to 40 percent.

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


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