Va.’s medical marijuana program on track for modest expansion, but bid to sell bud fails

By: - February 5, 2020 12:02 am

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Virginia lawmakers are deferring a push to allow Virginia’s nascent medical marijuana industry to provide patients with raw, smokable flowers in addition to highly processed THC and CBD oils and extracts currently allowed.

Representatives of the five pharmaceutical processors licensed by the state to produce marijuana framed the expansion as a way to make the program more accessible to patients who might not be able to afford more expensive preparations currently provided in the code.

“We’re all about patient access and we want to reduce cost as much as possible,” said Jack Page, chief operating officer of Dharma Pharmaceuticals in Bristol. “We see in other states that have flower that there is a direct reduction in the cost for patients. There are also certain conditions better treated with flower.”

Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, had put in legislation that would have allowed processors to sell flower, often referred to as bud. However he pulled the language from the legislation last month, saying he decided it was important to allow the medical marijuana program to become fully operational before making substantial changes. The first licensed dispensaries aren’t expected to open to patients until later this year.

On Tuesday, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, revised his legislation addressing the medical marijuana industry to instead convene a work group to study expansion, “including … the medical use of cannabis flowers.”

The legislation advanced to the floor with the unanimous recommendation of the House committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions.

“If we can have a work group that brings the processors, the regulatory agencies and patient interests together in one space to discuss the next year’s legislative agenda, that will reduce confusion and hopefully build consensus in advance of the General Assembly,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws.

Other modest expansions of the program are advancing.

The House committee unanimously approved legislation that will allow doctors and nurse practitioners to recommend marijuana to patients following a remote, telemedicine evaluation.

A Senate subcommittee, meanwhile, is weighing a proposal by Marsden to allow pharmaceutical processors to open one satellite location each from which they will be able to dispense products to patients. Under current law, the products can only be sold at the facility where they are produced.

The processors say both steps are necessary. Page, overseeing the Bristol operation, said the single facility is intended to serve a rural, 13,810-square-mile health district. And within that district, he said Dharma was only able to identify seven practitioners who have registered with the state to participate in the program and are accepting patients interested in receiving the recommendation necessary to obtain products.

A final bill, also proposed by Marsden, would make the medical marijuana program fully legal.

Currently, the code provides only an affirmative defense to participants. That means a patient or processor could still be charged and arrested, but a judge would dismiss the charges when presented with proof that the person is properly enrolled in the medical program.

The association that represents prosecutors in the state opposed the change, arguing in a committee meeting earlier this week that fully legalizing the program would make it difficult for law enforcement officers to investigate people claiming to participate.

Marsden argued police would still be able to pursue charges when they’re appropriate.

“I don’t want people to go through the pain of an arrest for having medicine for their child or their incapacitated adult parent,” he said. “Police can come back later and make an arrest later if they think they’re being scammed.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.