CHARLES TOWN – Medical cannabis is coming to West Virginia, and likely to main street Jefferson County, as a legal pain-control treatment for seriously or terminally ill patients.
Tuesday is the deadline for companies to file applications for the chance to grow, process or sell medical cannabis within the Mountain State. A limited number of licenses will be issued by the West Virginia Office of Medical Cannabis, a regulatory body established by law three years ago to allow for patients to buy physician-approved medical marijuana products at specialty retail dispensaries.
“It’s the first time West Virginia has done this,” said Eric Lewis, a Charles Town accountant assisting a company with the state’s licensing application.
That company, Greenhouse Wellness, currently operates a walk-in medical cannabis dispensary in Ellicott City, Md., that was featured last month on the Today TV show.
Founded by a physician and a venture capitalist, Greenhouse Wellness manufactures its own menu of various cannabis products for medical patients, Lewis said during recent presentations to the Jefferson County Commission and the Charles Town City Council. The company hopes to operate an integrated business that grows, processes and sells its own products in West Virginia.
Greenhouse Wellness has already found a commercial building off East Washington Street in Charles Town — for its retail dispensary, Lewis said. The company also hopes to open another dispensary in Martinsburg.
“We’re finalizing our growing process location,” he added.
All of those hopes for Greenhouse Wellness, and likely other companies with similar entrepreneurial aspirations, will depend on the licensing decisions to be made by the Office of Medical Cannabis operating under the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services.
Which companies are selected to receive the medical marijuana licenses available — 10 licenses to legally grow cannabis in indoor warehouses, 10 licenses to process its oils and chemicals into medical products, and 100 licenses to sell those products in a specialty cannabis pharmacy — could be decided in about six months, state health department officials reported.
Last week, state health officials said they had not received any applications for medical cannabis licenses.
Health officials estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 residents in West Virginia might be eligible to buy medical cannabis products.
“I’m hopeful that someone gets approved to offer medical cannabis in Jefferson County,” Lewis said. “I hope somebody does get [a medical cannabis dispensary license in the county] so that folks can have access to this.”
“I think it would be a positive economic boost,” he said.
Entering the medical cannabis business won’t be cheap. A license to either grow or process medical marijuana costs $50,000. A medical marijuana dispensary license costs $10,000, and companies must obtain a separate license for each dispensary.
To qualify for a grower’s or processor’s license, a company must have at least $2 million in capital, $500,000 of which must be on deposit at a financial institution. Companies operating dispensaries must maintain a total of $150,000 worth of assets on deposit at a financial institution.
The West Virginia Department of Agriculture has been issuing a limited number of permits, allowing farmers in the state to grow industrial hemp—a non-narcotic strain of marijuana — since Congress legalized the crop in 2014.
While West Virginia is now permitting the medical use of marijuana, recreational use of the psychoactive plant remains a crime.
Still illegal by federal drug laws, medical cannabis cannot cross state lines. All medical cannabis distributed in West Virginia has to be manufactured with marijuana grown and processed within the state, health officials reported.
To be exempt from criminal prosecution for marijuana possession, patients will have to obtain a medical cannabis prescription card from the Office of Medical Cannabis with a diagnosis certified by a doctor who is also registered with the medical cannabis office.
Signed into law in April 2017, the Medical Cannabis Act permits the manufacture and sale of medical cannabis products to people with serious, specified medical conditions treated by a physician. The law defines 15 specific and broad medical conditions for which physicians can prescribe medical marijuana. Those range from a terminal illness to cancer to Parkinson’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder to an affliction causing chronic or constant pain.
“You won’t find cataracts on the list,” Lewis said. “It’s all pretty serious stuff that allows for this.”
The state law restricts the medical use of cannabis to non-smokable forms such as pills, oils, skin patches or lotions, or vaporized forms that don’t rely on burning cannabis material, such as leaves or flowers.
Patients will be charged a 10 percent sales tax on medical cannabis, but no other taxes will be applied to those purchases.
The Medical Cannabis Act established a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to oversee the administration of the law.
Operating under the state Department of Health and Human Resources, the board consists of doctors and health professionals, scientists, police, agency representatives and attorneys.
Dispensaries can’t be located within 1,000 feet of any school or registered daycare operations, Lewis said. There are 57 day cares operating in Jefferson County, and the location of Wright Denny Intermediate School will prevent any dispensaries from opening in downtown Charles Town, he said.
“These things won’t be popping up everywhere,” he said. “There are very few locations that will qualify.”
Jefferson County’s health department will determine whether a location qualifies for a cannabis dispensary under the law, and the cannabis board will determine which proposed location receives a dispensary license.
While physicians will write prescriptions for patients to receive medical cannabis products, dispensaries will offer advice on the products patients receive, Lewis said.
Dispensaries must keep a physician on site to oversee the advice given to patients, but those on-site physicians can’t write prescriptions for patients, he said.
“There’s consultation,” he explained. “Different strains of cannabis have different benefits to different ailments.”
Lewis said some medical cannabis products are developed with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive compound that creates a high for cannabis users.
Those low-level THC products are typically produced to accentuate many other compounds found in cannabis, including various cannabidiols that are in some legal retail consumer products.
County health boards must approve the locations of medical cannabis dispensaries. County and municipal officials can object to medical cannabis production facilities and dispensaries in their jurisdictions.
“We would have to redirect everything to another county if this county said it didn’t want it,” Lewis told the Jefferson County Commission last week.
Jefferson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Cochran pointed out the state’s medical cannabis law violates federal drug possession laws.
During the Obama administration, Congress blocked the U.S. Justice Department from spending any money prosecuting drug possession cases involving medical cannabis, he said. However, he added that he wasn’t sure what the current status was on preventing federal prosecutions.
“I can’t advise you to approve or endorse something that is a violation of federal law,” Cochran offered the commissioners. “I suppose what you could say it’s not prohibited by any county ordinance.”
Responding to both Lewis and Cochran, the Jefferson County Commission last week voted to affirm that county zoning ordinances don’t prohibit medical cannabis dispensaries. Earlier this week Charles Town and Ranson officials agreed to take the same action Monday to do the same for the city. Ranson officials agreed last month to review their zoning laws to permit medical-cannabis establishments.
None of the county or municipal officials objected to having such businesses.
Commissioners Josh Compton and Patsy Noland, who often disagree on other policy matters, both said they didn’t want to stand in the way of medical cannabis possibly helping people.
“I’m not of the opinion that it’s a gateway to recreational [illicit drugs],” Compton said of medical cannabis. “If it can help terminally ill individuals, by all means.”
“I’ve given this a lot of thought too—ever since it became something that West Virginia was considering,” Noland said. “I do believe that medical cannabis is something that can help people, and as long it doesn’t violate any of our ordinances and it complies with state laws, I’m not going to object to it.”