Area docs see medical marijuana as recreational user’s back door

WHEELING — Some Ohio County health officials are concerned that implementation of West Virginia’s medical cannabis law next year may serve as a gateway to legalization of recreational marijuana.

State legislators have said action on recreational marijuana isn’t expected in the 60-day regular session that began Wednesday. However, Dr. John Holloway, chairman of the Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health, and county health officer Dr. William Mercer on Tuesday said legalization of marijuana for recreational usage often follows laws that allow the drug to be prescribed for medicinal purposes.

Medical cannabis won’t be available for prescription in West Virginia until July 2019. The state Bureau for Public Health is drafting temporary rules to implement the medical cannabis act that was adopted by the Legislature in April 2017.

Holloway said medical marijuana “is simply a back door for recreational use.”

Mercer agreed, citing examples from other states such as Colorado and California. He said, “Recreational (legalization) follows everywhere in two years. That’s the big concern.”

Holloway also criticized the use of medical marijuana in general. He said justification for “medical use comes from very bad medicine, very bad science.”

Mercer said some patients in his private practice might benefit from medical cannabis, but acknowledged that scientific data is lacking concerning proper dosage, effectiveness and potential dangers of the substance. He said,

“There is not a lot (of information) out there. It’s coming.”

Howard Gamble, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, said the Bureau for Public Health and the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board have not yet developed rules to regulate the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana. He said county health departments might be designated to monitor growing operations for medical cannabis, but standards for cultivation have not been defined.

“No one from the Northern Panhandle is helping us make those decisions,” Mercer said, referring to the advisory board’s membership.

Dr. Joseph Selby of Morgantown is the only member of the advisory board from the northern half of the state. The other 12 members are from the Charleston and Huntington areas. The next meeting of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board will be on Feb. 6.

Regarding distribution of medical cannabis, Mercer said, “I think it should come from the pharmacies.”

However, health board member Thomas Tuttle said a pharmacist who dispenses medical cannabis could be charged with a felony because marijuana still is classified as a Schedule I drug. Only federal authorities could declassify marijuana; local health officials think it is unlikely to happen under the current administration.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he will let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce federal law prohibiting it. Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country

During the health board’s meeting Tuesday, Holloway presented copies of two articles published in the January issue of JAMA Internal Medicine on “inadequate blinding” of medical cannabis research trials and on the dangers of second-hand marijuana smoke.

The journal’s article on second-hand smoke stated that “the California Environmental Protection Agency identified marijuana smoke as a human carcinogen based largely on the smoke’s toxicology.”

In response, Gamble said the Wheeling-Ohio County Clean Air Regulation’s 2016 revision includes the burning of a plant product as a smoking practice that is prohibited in public indoor and outdoor venues.