West Virginia recreational marijuana bill sent to 'die'

Mick Bates

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Republican leadership in the West Virginia House of Delegates is attempting to kill legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana, according to the bill’s author, Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh.

Bates was rebuffed in his efforts on Thursday to remove his bill from the Health and Human Resources Committee, where he claims it was sent to die.

Bates noted that it was the 16th day of the 60-day legislative session, and Health had yet to consider the proposed legislation.

Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, sent the bill to three committees — Health, Finance and Judiciary.

Bates accused Republican leadership of sending the bill to Health “to die” and made a motion to discharge the bill from that committee.

“It is time,” he said. “It is time we put the interests of West Virginians first and move this piece of legislation from the possession of (the) Health and Human Resources Committee, where it was sent to die, and on to the Judiciary and Finance committees, where it can be fully considered, vetted, acted upon, and voted on this session.”

House of Delegates Majority Leader Amy Summer, R-Taylor, moved to table Bates’ motion. The Republican majority voted with Summers, essentially keeping the bill where it had been parked.

On the floor, Bates said he was compelled to speak because Thursday was an “anniversary of sorts and time is running short and maybe out.”

“In the words of our governor, it’s ‘unbelievable’ that today is the one-year anniversary of what some have called my pot speech,” he said. “I prefer to refer to it as my ‘Cannabis Can’ remarks.”

On Jan. 24, 2019, Bates gave a speech in the House, announcing that he was introducing a marijuana decriminalization bill to help solve West Virginia’s “population problem” and spur economic growth. He made similar comments Thursday.

“Mr. Speaker, let the record reflect yet again that I’m not in favor of recreational marijuana,” he said. “What I do support, and what I believe the majority of West Virginians are for, and the majority of the members of this House would vote for if it came to the floor is the taxation, regulation, and decriminalization of the personal possession of cannabis by an adult over the age of 21,” Bates said. “Mr. Speaker, we have a population problem. West Virginia’s greatest export is not its coal; it’s its people and, in particular, its young people.”

Bates’ bill, House Bill 2331, would legalize cannabis for people 21 and older, permit them to possess up to an ounce, and require them to present proof of age before purchase. Counties could opt in or out by holding a vote on the issue.

Bates, who is minority chair of the Finance Committee, predicted that marijuana revenue could help make up for an anticipated $170 million budget shortfall each year beginning in 2022. Bates said marijuana “may very well be the only growth opportunity that West Virginia has in this coming decade.”

“Two years prior to my pot speech, in 2017, this body passed medical cannabis legislation,” he said. “Do you know how much money we’ve collected from our medical cannabis program? Zero. Do you know how much money we’ve collected from our hemp program? $15,000. We’ve heard from the treasurer, DHHR, and from the secretary of agriculture. We’ve spent millions of dollars and hundreds of man-hours on the administration of these programs, and we haven’t produced one ounce of product, nor enough money to pay for the paper we’ve used to regulate it.

“Hemp and medical cannabis are unprofitable and unsustainable without a full cannabis program and they’re digging a hole in our budget,” he said.

Speaker Pro Tempore Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, countered that solutions for West Virginia’s economy “would involve a diversified economy, educated workers, good roads and infrastructure, healthy families, safe workers, fair tax policy.”

“Those things, my friends, are difficult but necessary to economic health in West Virginia,” he said. “If you believe legal pot is an economic solution, you are being misled.”

Other, larger states have made hundreds of millions from marijuana legalization. In 2018, California collected $345 million in taxes, Washington collected $376 million and Colorado collected $270 million. Marijuana is legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states. Cannabis is still considered an illegal substance at the federal level.

In an interview Thursday, Del. Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, said he was taken off guard by Bates’ move on Thursday.

“Nobody’s come to me and asked me to run that,” Hill said. “I do plan on taking a look at that, hopefully tomorrow if I can.”

Hill was one of the lawmakers who worked to bypass the committee process in order to pass the state’s medical marijuana law, which passed in 2017 but has yet to be implemented.

He said he’d been more focused on other health issues, including foster care.

“The speaker nor (Majority Leader) Amy Summers has ever told me ‘do not run a bill,’” he said.

Erin Beck is a reporter at the Register Herald of Beckley. Email her atebeck@register-herald.com and follow her on Twitter @3littleredbones.

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