KEARNEYSVILLE – Marijuana, not uncommonly adorned with its more scientific-sounding Latinate name cannabis, has been used throughout the world for generations as a narcotic for recreational enjoyment. The plant’s various chemical compounds and psychoactive agents have also been offered as an unconventional remedy to alleviate a variety of maladies, from anxiety to chronic pain.
Many marijuana users, including seriously or terminally ill patients, swear it provides tremendous benefits of relief.
But marijuana is not medicine, cautioned Dr. Terrence Reidy, chief medical officer for Jefferson County Health Department. And the term medical marijuana is a deceptive contradiction, causing confusion and consequences, he said.
“Medical cannabis is a term that has been coined, but this is not recognized throughout the medical community as a proper treatment for any illness,” Reidy explained. “To call it medication, I think, is incorrect. … It’s not medicine.”
Reidy’s comments as a physician with more than 40 years of experience were offered last week during a Jefferson County Board of Health meeting. The board was asked to approve 13 applications from companies seeking state health department permits to either sell, “process” or manufacture, or grow medical marijuana in Jefferson County.
Reidy shared his perspective at the request of county health board members, none of whom have medical training, as theystruggled over whether to sanction in any way what remains business activities still prohibited by federal law.
“This is a controlled substance,” Reidy explained of the state efforts underway to allow the limited sale of medical marijuana. “It’s being handled differently than all other medications. All other medications go through the [West Virginia] Board of Pharmacy. This did not go through that process.”
The West Virginia Office of Medical Marijuana, established as a division of the state legislature, is reviewing 285 applications to prepare or sell marijuana as medicine at various locations throughout the state.
Eight separate applications were submitted to sell medical marijuana in Charles Town, Ranson, Shepherdstown or Kearneysville. Three applications were filed to process such products in Charles Town and Kearneysville. Two applications were submitted to grow medical marijuana in Charles Town and Kearneysville.
A state 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.
“With pain, there’s this huge interest in non-medicated ways of dealing with pain—physical therapy and mindfulness and everything else,” Reidy observed. “There’s huge money trying to undo the effects of prescribing narcotics.”
Jason Frame, director of the state’s medical marijuana programs, said only 100 dispensary permits, only 10 processing permits and only 10 growing permits can be issued for the entire state.
“At this time there are no plans for [accepting] additional applications,” he said. “This is a one-time deal.”
Frame said the state law requires local health boards to approve the issuing of permits within their jurisdictions. County health board can disapprove any or all of the applications to operate a medical marijuana business within their jurisdictions, he said.
“At that point, the application can no longer move forward through the permitting process,” Frame said of any board of health’s failure to support the applications. “As far as we’re concerned at the state, it would be a dead application at that point.”
However, the state law provides no guidance, Frame acknowledged, on how local health departments should reconcile the state’s efforts to advance the production and sale of medical marijuana with the federal law’s prohibition of those activities. “You’re simply going to have to make an overall decision whether or not these businesses are beneficial or detrimental to the health of your county,” he told the four health board members.
“This approval really only has to do with whether a [medical marijuana] business can be sited in your county,” he told them. “The Board of Health’s responsibility is only to issue this approval.”
Signed into law in 2017, the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act permits the limited manufacture and sale of medical cannabis products to people with serious, specified medical conditions treated by a physician. There are 15 conditions for which state residents with a diagnosis certified by a physician can legally obtain a medical marijuana product. Those conditions can range from cancer to Parkinson’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder to any terminal illness to an illness causing chronic or constant pain.
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 any part of the plant.
Frame pointed out that physicians will not prescribe medical marijuana. Instead, they will only certify that a patient has been diagnosed with one of the medical conditions that allow the patient to buy a marijuana product for personal use, he said.
Reidy said he would never prescribe marijuana in any form to any patient of his. In fact, he could lose his federal doctor’s license to prescribe real medicine if he did, he added.
“If I were to prescribe this it would be against the standards of [medical] care,” he said.
Time will likely expose how inappropriate today’s discussions advocating the use of marijuana are, Reidy said. “Years past there were television ads talking about doctors saying cigarettes are good for your health,” he said. “People laugh about using whiskey for medicinal purposes, but we don’t prescribe it.
“I don’t prescribe alcohol for people. There are better ways to manage [medical illnesses and symptoms].”
Reidy said he sees the medical marijuana issue not as a step toward providing better medical care but as a step toward advancing an agenda to legalize the personal possession and use of marijuana for any reason. “There is a huge demand for the ability to legally purchase marijuana in any form,” he said. “And the question is, can you prohibit it? That’s one of the pieces, but legalizing it under the name of medicine is incorrect.”
Recreational use of marijuana in West Virginia remains a crime. Still illegal under federal drug laws, medical marijuana cannot cross state lines. All medical marijuana distributed in West Virginia has to be grown and processed within the state.
Reidy predicted that the consequences of liberalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes will lead to more drug addiction. “There’s no question that people taking opiates or marijuana or other things that are psychoactive will alter their perceptions—how they experience different problems,” he said. “But, unfortunately, they can have a huge downside and the dependence or addictions to this is huge.”
State health officials have estimated that between 20,000 to 50,000 residents in West Virginia might be eligible to buy medical marijuana products. About one in 10 marijuana users will become addicted to the drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those who start using the drug before the age of 18, the addiction rate rises to one in six.
“If you look at the actual guidelines of who can get this, it’s a huge number of people,” Reidy said. “It’s pretty scant evidence saying that it’s appropriate medical treatment for a lot of those conditions.”
After listening to Reidy and asking questions, the health board members weighed whether to stand aside or stand in the way of a budding big medical marijuana industry in Jefferson County—and the hopes and expectations of people suffering from medical conditions. The board members maneuvered their dilemma following advice from county attorney Nathan Cochran.
Voting 3-1, the board members allowed the applications to move forward for a final review and decision by state officials, but with the legal stipulation recognizing that no county health regulation prevents such businesses from operating.
“The board is just making a statement to the state that you don’t perceive any violations of any local board of health rules,” Cochran explained. “That’s all you’re saying. It’s up to the other entities to make their determinations with their respective spheres of jurisdiction.”