West Virginia Advocates Collecting Signatures for Decriminalization Ballot Measures

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A West Virginia cannabis advocacy group called Charleston Can’t Wait has recently been collecting signatures to put a decriminalization measure on the ballot this November in Fairmount and Charleston.

The organization is connected to West Virginia Can’t Wait, which is led by former 2020 governor candidate Stephen Smith. Described as “a movement to win a people’s government in the Mountain State,” it strives to support political candidates who represent the people of West Virginia and aren’t accepting donations from corporations or the fossil fuel industry.

Charleston Can’t Wait is on track to collect the required 2,000 signatures for its decriminalization effort by July 14. As of May 27, the organization’s Facebook page reported an update on the overwhelming support from local residents. “We’re a whole heap of signatures closer tonight! Why? Because nearly every single person we ask says YES,” the organization said on its social media.

If voted into law, those caught in possession of cannabis would be charged a fine similar to that of a speeding ticket. “So, that’s what the goal is, and essentially, the ordinance that we have would do. It’s commonly referred to as, ‘No fines, no time and no court costs,’” said West Virginia Can’t Wait Director Sarah Hutson.

According to the Times West Virginia, Charleston Can’t Wait is aiming to collect 3,000 signatures in Fairmount. Only 2,010 are required, which is 15% of the city’s 13,402 residents, but they currently have under 100 signatures. In Charleston however, only 1,919 valid signatures are required, and over 1,000 signatures have been collected so far.

“In Charleston’s Charter, you do not need to pre-file to do a ballot initiative, you just start collecting signatures and then turn them in at the end,” Hutson said. “Whereas, here in Fairmont, you have to actually start with a committee of five people who are going to be responsible for the petition and you have to have an affidavit signed by each of them, then the city provides the format of the signature collection.”

Fairmount was chosen as a focus location because the organization had previously been established there in 2020 with Smith’s run for governor. To Hutson though, it was a matter of local support. “We didn’t really choose Fairmont, Fairmont chose us.”

West Virginia passed a medical cannabis law in 2017, which was signed by Gov. Jim Justice. However, the state didn’t open up license registration until May 2021, which initially began with 1,400 applicants and quickly increased to 4,000 by November 2021. West Virginia welcomed the opening of its first dispensary, located in Morgantown, in November 2021.

Medical cannabis dispensary rollout has continued, albeit not at a rapid pace. According to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, seven out of the 10 cultivators are operational now, but only 17 out of the state’s 100 dispensary allowances are currently open.

Johnny McFadden, co-founder of Mountaineer Integrated Care, explained that the state’s 17 dispensaries aren’t enough to serve the state’s many medical cannabis patients. “Unfortunately, they’re not spread out, especially the Eastern Panhandle.” said “You look at the map, there’s nothing, and that is a huge barrier to patient access right now.” To date, West Virginia’s Office of Medical Cannabis has received 10,031 medical cannabis patient applications.

McFadden added that the desire to hire local has caused a few delays. “You couldn’t possibly have legal cannabis experience as a potential employee, unless you’re breaking the law, which makes it tough to put it on a resume,” McFadden said.

Charleston Can’t Wait advocates are regularly hosting education and signature collecting events, which are happening nearly every weekend between now and July 14.

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