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Upshur County Development Authority Director Rob Hinton asks that the commission write a letter in support of medical marijuana production in Upshur County -- a move he says could result in as many as 100 new jobs.

Commission throws support behind medical marijuana production in Upshur County

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Commission on Thursday approved a request that it write a letter of support for three pharmaceutical companies looking to grow and process medical cannabis in Upshur County.

Rob Hinton, Upshur County Development Authority Director, attended the Feb. 6 Upshur County Commission meeting to discuss the Medical Cannabis Act, which was signed into law in April 2017 and permits certified medical use of cannabis by West Virginia residents with serious medical conditions.

The law limits the forms of cannabis to pills, oils and topical formulas and currently excludes “dry leaf or plant form[s].” (Read more here.)

Hinton also discussed the economic benefits of having these types of facilities in Upshur County and requested a letter of approval from the commission, which is submitted in the process of receiving a permit to grow and process medical cannabis.

“In April 2017, the state Legislature passed the Medical Cannabis Act that allows patients suffering from 15 serious medical conditions access to medication,” Hinton said. “West Virginia was the 29th state at that time to pass this law, and today 33 states have passed similar legislation – 66 percent of the country.”

Hinton said the Federal Drug Administration recently approved the first CBD – or cannabidiol – medication for treatment of severe epilepsy.

“In 2018, the Federal Drug Administration approved its first CBD medication for treatment of seizures in severe forms of epilepsy and is following up with approval of three additional medications,” he added. “The FDA has developed a model for clinical studies to develop further medications for review through their Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. In the near future, the FDA will most likely approve further related medications and keep moving towards a federally regulated market.”

Hinton said he has several pharmaceutical companies interested in the Upshur County area. My Buckhannon previously confirmed that Armory Pharmaceuticals is one of the three entities applying for permits, but the other two companies have not been publicly identified.

“If we were looking at this from a market and industry strength, if we were evaluating it based on that, the trends show that a community that can land a pharmaceutical manufacturer would bode well and have an uptick in economic impact,” Hinton said. “That’s why I’m here today.”

Hinton said Upshur County has a median household income of $40,000 a year, while the national average is $63,688, and the per capita income in Upshur County is $27,701 with the national average being significantly higher at $46,800. He also said the average number of people living in poverty in Upshur County is 19 percent – and that represents 4,636 people.

“Those numbers have to improve if we want to create economic development, and the only way they’re going to improve is by creating jobs here,” Hinton said.

He said the projections from one company looking to establish a processing plant in Upshur County is up to 100 jobs within the first three years. That business is projected to pay a minimum wage of $20 per hour or $40,000 per year. He said the average employee salary is expected to be $65,000 a year.

“These are life-changing job opportunities, and that’s what’s important about today – I’m asking the commission to take up a vote of support to welcome these types of job-creating companies to invest in our community for the long term,” Hinton said.

He said the state has authorized the industry to operate in West Virginia, and that Upshur County should benefit.

“There is no argument that this industry is challenged with moral and ethical conflicts, and there is nothing wrong with [those questions],” Hinton said. “The fact remains that the state has lawfully authorized this industry to operate in West Virginia, so basically, we have two choices. One, we can take bold steps and invest in this opportunity and support the jobs opportunity before us, and hopefully land at least one of these companies in our county – maybe we’ll get three, shoot for the stars, right? Let’s create jobs and change people’s lives for the better.”

He said the other option is to allow manufacturers to operate out of another county in West Virginia.

“Choice two is hesitation,” Hinton said. “You [or others may see this] as a decision to challenge the will of the state. Morally, [perhaps] you don’t believe in the medication approach, and you don’t want this in our community and that’s fine. There’s moral objections and ethical conflicts with everything we do. However, a path in opposition of the state’s decision to authorize will not stop patients from Upshur County from having access to the medication if they suffer from one of the 15 medical conditions. The path will only result in sending a message to these companies to look elsewhere.”

Commissioner Kristie Tenney asked Hinton how many dispensaries and growers will be allowed to operate within the state.

From left, commissioner Sam Nolte, commissioner Kristie Tenney and commission president Terry Cutright discuss writing a letter in support of medical marijuana production in Upshur County. Nolte and Cutright voted in favor of doing so, while Tenney opposed the move, saying she wanted to wait until members of the public had a chance to weigh in.

“I’m kind of just supporting the growing/processing, which is the manufacturing side of it,” Hinton said. “I’m not saying that dispensing is not important, but I don’t think we’re going to get a huge economic impact from a dispensary.”

According to the W.Va. Office of Medical Cannabis, the state’s Bureau for Public Health will issue no more than 10 permits to growers, 10 permits to processors and 100 permits for dispensaries statewide.

Commission President Terry Cutright asked if the companies could be based outside Upshur County, should they be approved for the permits.

“They could, and I would like to be optimistic about that, but that also represents roughly a third of the applications or the permits [the state Bureau for Public Health] would grant,” Hinton said.

Tenney also asked what areas of Upshur County the manufacturers were interested in establishing locations.

“There is interest to locate on Brushy Fork Road for one of the facilities and at the armory is the other facility that that we know of, and there hasn’t been a decision yet on the third company from a property standpoint,” Hinton said.

Commissioner Sam Nolte asked if all three of the companies are startups.

“Only one of the companies is a startup company and that’s the one at the armory, the other two companies are already operating in multiple states, so in California, Colorado and Ohio, and they said they’ve been doing this for a while, so they’ve got a track record, they’ve got history,” Hinton said. “That’s where the job numbers came from. It comes from their experience with other plants.”

Tenney said she would like to wait to make a final decision.

“I feel like the West Virginia Code has allowed for the people to have a vote and because of the way that law was written, I would like to see that maybe we would have further discussion and wait until next week and discuss further,” Tenney said.

Hinton responded by saying the companies might not wait and go elsewhere.

“I understand and respect the decision to discuss this further, but it goes to the second point of hesitation,” Hinton said. “If there’s a doubt that the community is going to welcome these companies, they’re going to look for other places to go.”

Cutright said realistically, a public vote couldn’t take place until May, when it would be too late. All applications for growing, processing and dispensing must be submitted by a Feb. 18 deadline, according to the Office of Medical Cannabis.

“I am big on rights, and I think the right to vote is the most important right we have, but the way the legislators have presented this, the right for the public to vote on it now would be useless because they are going to vote on it in May, the deadline is Feb. 18,” Cutright said. “If we vote to vote on it in May, the companies are just going to pull out and go, so there is no need to have a vote on it.”

“I like the idea of the people getting to vote, and if we had six months or a year, I would say put it on the ballot,” Cutright added. “I think this is one of those really tough decisions that comes before the commission that the people elected us to make. We’re not representing the people that may be for the jobs if we put it on the ballot and just completely cut the cord on that. I think the commission needs to make a decision.”

Nolte said he wanted to reiterate that the commission’s vote on whether to write a letter of support is completely different from the issue of the legality of medical cannabis.

“It’s not a matter of us voting on whether we want it to be legal or illegal in Upshur County,” Nolte said. “That has already been determined by the state. We just need to determine whether we are in favor of jobs and a facility, and I assume it will be kind of like the health department handling restaurants and what-not. I’m sure this will be regulated by the state.”

Hinton said the process is highly regulated in West Virginia.

“This is extremely, highly regulated and some of the requirements are more stringent than other states,” Hinton said. “It forces the companies to only manufacture a pharmaceutical product, whether it’s a tablet or an oil solution product, like cough syrup or something like that or a patch. This isn’t a drug, from a standpoint of an illicit drug. This is pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

Tenney said she wished they had to more time to discuss the matter further.

“For me, since the Legislature has put it that way, it’s unfortunate that we just didn’t know and have more time to be able to put that out to the community,” Tenney said.

Nolte said he understood Tenney’s point, but he also didn’t want to send the wrong message to the companies.

“Honestly, I have reached out to a lot of people in the community and people have been supportive,” he said. “I haven’t really had anyone approach me that is against it mainly due to the fact the decision has already been made by the state.”

Nolte made the motion to submit the letter of support and Cutright seconded the motion, which passed. Tenney voted against writing the letter of support.

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