Morgantown debates whether or not to decriminalize marijuana

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There’s a push, from some, in the city of Morgantown to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.  

The topic is being seriously discussed because the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of West Virginia proposed a draft ordinance to the city council in late November. The ordinance would take away jail time and instead require the offender to pay a small fine no more than $15. Councilmember Rachel Fetty, who represents the city’s first ward, said the proposal is not in any kind of shape to be voted on because there are a lot of unanswered questions and elements to figure out for the complex issue.  

“I think we’re going to be asking for a workgroup, I can’t speak for the rest of council, but I personally believe this topic needs to be aired thoroughly,” Fetty said. “We need to hear from our chief of police as well as possibly the local health department and other groups that might have concerns, including the groups that brought this issue to us. I’d like to see research on the subject, and I’d like to get more information from our community before we reach a final decision.” 

According to current West Virginia law, possession of 15 grams of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor, the court can offer the offender probation, drug testing and other options keeping them out of jail. That rule is currently enforced by city, university and state police, as well as the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department. This means even if the city were to pass the ACLU’s ordinance the state law would still be enforced by every other entity but the Morgantown Police Department.  

Fetty said there’s a lot the council has a lot to juggle in figuring this issue out but that she is hopeful that they will be able to understand what is possible within the state’s structure. She said, personally, she would like to see the state step in and create the law. 

“What I would like to see personally, is the state passes laws that decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, that we would restructure our sentencing system as a whole, that we would make medical marijuana available by prescription to anyone who needs it,” Fetty said. “Because a lot of people are dealing with a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in the way in which they can be prescribed toxic and addictive chemicals by a doctor on the one hand and certainly cannot access something that is significantly less harmful in terms of the public health outcome.” 

However, at the same time, Fetty said there is a strong tendency to minimalize the effects of cannabis when talking to children. The information children are receiving she said is not keeping up with the real ingenuity of people who are processing cannabis into extremely concentrated THC (the psychoactive chemical that gets you high) products and we’re simply not at a point where we’ve been able to catch up to their ingenuity. 

Her stance on decriminalization is nuanced Fetty said because it is informed by being a parent, guardian to teenagers who have struggled with addiction and as someone who works with children who have been subject to abuse and neglect because of substance abuse. In addition, she said she is informed by her personal abstinence from marijuana and would encourage others to do the same and teach that to their children. 

“My personal experience has made me concerned about possible side effects, particularly for adolescents who are using, particularly for young people who have a history of drug abuse or mental health concerns in their families,” Fetty said. “I feel very strongly that we need to have honest and frank conversations with our children about our own histories, about our own use, even though most of our children are experiencing some side effects from the use of a family member of any kind of drug, that doesn’t mean they understand the full consequences.”  

Fetty said although she may not be an advocate for marijuana use recreationally, she does, however, advocate for the use of medical marijuana. West Virginia already has the law in place, by which she was referring to the 2017 medical marijuana bill, SB 386, which was signed by Gov. Jim Justice, after having passed by 76-24 votes in the house and 28-6 in the senate.  

People who need marijuana for medical purposes should have access to it without any penalties whatsoever Fetty said.  

“It’s very discouraging to see that that legislation and the regulations that would be attached to that regulation have not been enacted as quickly as they need to be enacted,” Fetty said. “I enjoy very much the debate among my fellow council members, I think it’s important that we have these conversations, I know that we mean well, we don’t want anyone to be incarcerated for the possession of small amounts of marijuana–marijuana is for the mass majority of the population is not as great of a concern than the many other drugs that we are dealing with. However, we do have to have to take it very seriously as a public health concern and I’m looking forward to that discussion.” 

The Office of Medical Cannabis (OMC) will begin accepting permit applications for medical cannabis growers, processors, dispensaries, and laboratories on December 19, 2019, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

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