CHARLESTON — Although no funding was allocated for the startup of the state’s medical marijuana program, the head of the state Bureau for Public Health said he is looking at internal ways to initially fund the program.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, estimated the startup costs for the program will run about $2 million — $700,000 of which will go toward developing a “seed to sale” program to track medical marijuana.
Gupta and other agency and board representatives Monday updated members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health, on the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, including work the board has already done along with challenges in the future. Initial funding was one of the concerns mentioned at the meeting.
Senate Bill 386 did not allocate initial funding for the program but did provide mechanisms in subsequent years through fees, Gupta said. He estimated after that startup cost, he expects ongoing costs should be about $1 million.
Gupta said the agency is looking at how to fund the startup costs internally, saying he is working with the DHHR and the governor’s office.
“We didn’t want this to be something the taxpayers fund,” Gupta said. “What we are going to do is have a system where money is loaned to us from another source in the government. We are working closely with the DHHR, Secretary Crouch, as well as the governor’s office to look at all of our options available.”
However, to pay back that loan, the agency will have to have legislative approval. Gupta said the agency will make that request to the Legislature in the upcoming session.
“I am fully committed to making this particular piece of legislation successful,” Gupta said. “These are some of the snags. … This bill was put together very quickly and obviously, no bill is perfect. We certainly discussed the shortcomings but that doesn’t mean the program won’t be successful and be on track.”
Gupta said the program is on track.
“We wanted to make sure the Legislature understood we would be requesting that,” he said. “What option did we have? Not to act because of that reason? We didn’t want to do that. We want to do it because lives are at stake. They are depending on the program to be successful. Many people are in chronic pain. We want to take on that challenge.”
He said emergency rules are being drafted for growers, dispensaries and processors. Another emergency rule in the process concerns safe harbor for terminally ill cancer patients to be able to get medical marijuana from another state to bring to West Virginia and not be subject to criminal prosecution.
There are some caveats, however. States must have similar statutes relating to medical marijuana as West Virginia and West Virginia must have an MOU with them before this can happen.
“We will also identify states with very similar statutes then have an MOU with them,” Gupta said. “The rules allow us to reach out to other states similarly situated and have legal agreements with them.”
Jesse Forbes, a Charleston attorney who is a member of the advisory board, said this is limited to terminally ill cancer patients. He emphasized that this is not legal yet.
“It’s not legal right now,” he said. “It all rolls out in 2019 and they have got to go through the process to be certified, have a card issued by the state of West Virginia, have a doctor treating them for a requisite amount of time. It’s important for people to understand not to buy marijuana and think it’s legal right now.”
Gupta said these emergency rules will be put out to the advisory board and then out to public comment. He said he hopes to have these rules ready by the end of the year.
Gupta said the agency also is working to hire people and determine how many people will be needed to staff the Office of Medical Cannabis. The agency posted a job Monday for the director of office.
Gupta said the office will also need legal counsel and inspectors, however the number of inspectors will be driven by demand.
In April, Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 386 into law making West Virginia the 29th state to legalize medical cannabis.
Gupta said since that time, his office has received calls every day.
“Those calls have been everything from growers and processors, people wanting to invest in West Virginia, both from West Virginia as well as out of state and across the country,” Gupta said. “But more importantly, we have received calls from people who are suffering who want to have some sort of relief. They are asking when they can get their patient ID card and go to their doctors to get certification.
In July, a 13-member advisory board was appointed and is tasked with developing guidelines to license growers, dispensaries and processors.
The board also will provide physician education and develop an electronic database to house the information, including Patient ID cards. The board had its first meeting last month and will meet again in October.
Forbes said in the upcoming meeting, one of the main tasks is splitting board members into subgroups based on individual expertise to tackle sections of the report. One of the board’s goal is to put out a report before 2019 detailing recommendations to the DHHR and Legislature what the board thinks the rules should be moving forward.
“Some of what we will do at the next meeting will be to determine who will work on what areas of the report,” he said. “The report is pretty detailed from the code itself as to what to focus on. Everyone on the board has been willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work early.”
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