The state of West Virginia is in the midst of a $240 million budgetary shortfall, reeling from a downturn in prices for coal and natural gas, two of the state’s economic cornerstones, leading some legislator’s to suggest a solution: legalizing cannabis.
“It’s an industry that already exists here, and we don’t get a single dime from it,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha), who introduced the bill during a special session addressing the massive budget shortfall. “Whenever we bring [legalized marijuana] up here, people snicker and chuckle, but nobody’s laughing at the people of Colorado, who are able to fully fund higher education and Medicaid. They’re not having the types of budget issues in Colorado that we’re having here.”
In what boils down to a “Hail Mary” in a conservative state where those caught with any amount of cannabis can be held in jail for three to six months with a fine up to a $1000, Pushkin realizes the bill, HB 114, has very little chance of passing. HB 114 would decriminalize and permit the use of cannabis on a limited basis for those 21 and older who purchase a $500 tax stamp that allows one to use, cultivate and possess up to two ounces of cannabis.
“I’m not under any illusion that House Speaker Tim Armstead will let this bill see the light of day,” Pushkin said. “But in a time of financial crisis, all options need to be on the table, and I’m glad to be able to start the conversation.”
West Virginia has had a bill to legalize medical marijuana (MMJ) introduced into each of the last five legislative sessions, but the legislature has failed to act on any of them before adjourning, even as a 2014 poll shows state support of MMJ growing to 56 percent (from 53 percent), per a poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project and conducted by Public Policy Polling. The state senate also has a cannabis bill, SB 640, introduced last February.)
Two of the candidates for Governor sit on opposite sides of the fence concerning legalization. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler believes legalizing MMJ would go a long way to aid in the treatment of serious diseases, and decriminalization would give many a second chance in the job market.
“I think we need to decriminalize some of the particularly marijuana offenses," Kessler said. "There are way too many people that have got a criminal record that can no longer work. These folks are now permanently under or unemployable because they have some, because they smoked pot or got caught with an ounce of pot when they were 21 years old.”
Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin believes cannabis to be a gateway to harder drugs that the state is currently struggling to address.
“People don’t understand that the marijuana of today has 10 times the THC content of the marijuana of the late '60s, early '70s," Goodwin said. "But here is the problem I ultimately have, every time we have arrested a druggy, they have said they went through marijuana. Is that because it is crossing that bright line of illegality, or is it because that it is a true gateway? That’s the difficulty I have.”
While both sides of the debate use the typical arguments for and against legalization, what it may ultimately come down to is money. West Virginia is desperate to climb out of its huge budgetary shortfall and eyes the substantial tax haul that states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon have made by ending prohibition altogether.
“We don’t need to have tax increases on hard-working people, and we don’t need to make any more drastic cuts to balance the budget,” Pushkin said. A solution, he believes, lies in legalization.