ND bills would improve medical marijuana access

BISMARCK (AP) — As North Dakota’s Health Department enters the final stages of implementing a statewide distribution system for medical marijuana, state lawmakers are considering proposals that would make it easier for patients to get doctor approval for the drug.
Medical marijuana advocates are applauding, especially after more than two years of waiting for the drug approved by voters in November 2016.
“At this point, we’ll take anything that makes it easier for providers to certify any patient that they feel would benefit,” said Anita Morgan, spokeswoman for North Dakota Compassionate Care, which pushed for legalization of medical marijuana.
A proposal that appears headed for a floor vote in the House would add physician assistants to the list of medical professionals who can certify patients. The list currently includes physicians and advanced practice registered nurses.
Another important proposed change would help ease the concerns of doctors who must give their approval before patients can get state-approved medical marijuana cards.
The Health Department hopes to have medical marijuana dispensaries operating in the state’s eight major cities by fall. Medical marijuana grown at a state-approved Bismarck manufacturing facility could be available at either the Grand Forks or Fargo dispensary within weeks, according to Jason Wahl, director of the department’s Medical Marijuana Division.
The state estimates that as many as 4,000 residents will legally be using the drug by summer 2021. But so far, it has issued fewer than 100 medical marijuana cards to patients and caregivers. Applications have been accepted since late October.
Medical marijuana advocates say finding doctors willing to certify patients has been a struggle.
“As somebody who worked really hard to get this approved, this is not what we wanted,” said Sheri Paulson, who has multiple sclerosis. “We were looking for something to help patients, and we still feel that was not obtained, and that breaks my heart. It shouldn’t be such an uphill climb.”
The concerns of the medical community are many, including that marijuana can be addictive and can have adverse side effects, according to the American Medical Association. Medical marijuana also is still illegal under federal law. Doctors are largely protected from losing their Drug Enforcement Administration licenses to prescribe controlled drugs if they recommend marijuana to patients in good faith, but some doctors still “don’t want to deal with even the remotest risk of certifying a Schedule 1 drug,” said Chris Meeker, chief medical officer in Bismarck for Sanford Health.
The drug’s status also has made it difficult to conduct medical research, he said, and “a lot of the evidence is lacking in some of these areas for the efficacy of marijuana.”
Current state law requires doctors who certify a patient to assert that medical marijuana will help that person. Meeker and North Dakota Medical Association Executive Director Courtney Koebele say that puts many doctors in an uncomfortable ethical position.
“There’s not enough studies to ensure that it will be beneficial for a lot of people,” Koebele said.
The Legislature is considering removing that requirement, and allowing doctors to simply state that a patient has a medical condition that qualifies under the law.
“The less you require physicians to say about marijuana, the more likely they will be” to certify patients, Meeker said.
Wahl said the state Health Department supports removing the requirement, which Morgan called “a poison pill.”
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, one of the sponsors of the legislation two years ago, said there was nothing nefarious about it. That provision and one requiring a continuing-care relationship between the certifying doctor and patient were added to protect patients, and were similar to what other states were doing, she said.
Most medical marijuana states require certifying doctors to make some sort of statement about patient benefit, according to Marijuana Policy Project State Policies Director Karen O’Keefe and National Conference of State Legislatures Behavioral Health Director Karmen Hanson.
“The whole point of getting the certification is that the doctor believes, yes, this may help,” Hanson said.
Other proposals in the North Dakota House would add edible products to the list of approved medical marijuana forms and would add to the list of approved medical conditions.
Meeker said he would rather see the state list treatable symptoms rather than conditions, “because this list will do nothing but continue to grow. Every two years, there’s going to be an advocacy group at the Legislature saying, ‘this should be added.’”
Advocates would prefer that the Health Department be given some sort of authority to add qualifying illnesses as research advances, according to Morgan.
“You can’t wait every other year for things to be added,” she said.
Lawmakers have killed a proposal to allow patients to grow their own marijuana, and they’re backing off on a proposal that would have removed the state requirement that a doctor who certifies a patient also be responsible for the patient’s continued treatment. Meeker said such a change could lead to “marijuana mills,” with transient doctors setting up temporary shops for the sole purpose of doling out patient approvals.
“It would be one step short of recreational marijuana,” he said.
O’Keefe and Hanson said most medical marijuana states require some type of doctor-patient relationship, though Hanson said the level of North Dakota’s requirement is “on the high end.”

Weinstein in court to replace legal team

NEW YORK (AP) — Harvey Weinstein is due in court for a judge to formally sign off on changes to the legal team in his sexual assault case.
The disgraced Hollywood mogul is looking to replace defense attorney Benjamin Brafman with four lawyers. They include Jose Baez, who won an acquittal for Florida mom Casey Anthony on charges she killed her young daughter.
Judge James Burke is expected to approve the swap at Friday’s hearing in New York City.
The 66-year-old Weinstein is charged with raping a woman in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006. He denies all allegations of nonconsensual sex.
Weinstein’s new legal team also features Ronald Sullivan, Pamela Robillard Mackey and ex-Manhattan prosecutor Duncan Levin.

American Legion’s NY members gathering in centennial year

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Members of the American Legion from across New York state are gathering for a conference and to hear a message from a descendant of the man who helped create the national organization a century ago.
The American Legion’s Department of New York is holding its three-day mid-winter conference starting Friday at a suburban Albany hotel.
American Legion Post No. 1 in Albany was founded in 1919 and bears the name of Teddy Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president. His son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., helped start the organization in France after World War I.
Theodore Roosevelt IV recently sat with the American Legion’s New York commander for a filmed interview that will be presented during the conference. The great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt was a Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam.

Shutdown prompts postponement of retreat in W.Va.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — An annual retreat for Republican members of Congress at a West Virginia resort has been postponed due to the government shutdown.
The retreat had been scheduled from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs.
The Congressional Institute said in a statement Wednesday that members of Congress instead should be in Washington, D.C., “negotiating a path that gets our federal workforce back on the job.”
The statement says the conference will be rescheduled for later this year.
Last year a train carrying congressional Republicans to the resort struck a garbage truck at a crossing in Crozet, Virginia. One person in the truck was killed.

McVey named W.Va. secretary of administration

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has appointed Allan L. McVey as secretary of administration.
Justice announced the appointment in a news release Wednesday.
McVey replaces John Myers, who was appointed state lottery director in September.
McVey has served as state insurance commissioner since March 2017.
According to its website, the programs and services the Department of Administration oversees are related to state facility management, personnel, purchasing, technology, health and liability insurance and real estate.

W.Va. city reports overdose deaths doubled in 2018

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — Drug overdose deaths doubled in one West Virginia community last year.
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register reports figures released Tuesday by Wheeling police show officers responded to 13 overdose deaths last year, compared with six in 2017 and three in 2016.
West Virginia has by far the nation’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths.
The Wheeling police report found there were 132 calls to police overall for overdoses in 2018, compared with 110 in 2017 and 98 in 2016.
Chief Shawn Schwertfeger says most overdoses involved opioids and some involved crystal methamphetamine.
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Information from: The Intelligencer, http://www.theintelligencer.net

New crayfish species named after West Virginia professor

WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. (AP) — A biology professor in West Virginia who studies crayfish now has a new species named after him.
West Liberty University says in a news release that the blue, burrowing crayfish species is named after professor Zachary Loughman. The statement says the new species is found only in West Virginia.
The statement says a scientific paper about the new species was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Natural History. Among the numerous authors of the paper are two of Loughman’s former students.
The paper says Loughman’s work has contributing greatly to the understanding of Appalachian crayfish species.

Environmental conservation kicks off state budget hearings

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A top Cuomo administration official says New York state’s environment is being threatened by Donald Trump’s policies.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos testified during a state budget hearing Wednesday in Albany that the Republican president’s roll backs of environmental rules are an “unprecedented assault on the environment.”
Seggos was the opening witness for the first of 13 public hearings scheduled by the Assembly and Senate on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget proposal for the next fiscal year.
The third-term Democrat last week released a $175 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins April 1.
Among Cuomo’s environmental conservation proposals: banning plastic bags given to store customers and expanding the state’s bottle bill to include sports drinks and other containers currently not required to have a 5-cent deposit.

2 abandoned bobcat kittens get permanent home at W.Va. zoo

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — Two bobcat kittens found abandoned in West Virginia have been given a permanent home at the Oglebay Good Zoo.
The zoo in Wheeling says in a news release the two female kittens named Bobbi and Gina were found in rural Marshall County. They now are in the nursery at the zoo’s veterinary and quarantine hospital.
The zoo says it’s offering guests the chance to visit the kittens. Guests must be at least 8 years old to participate. Visits can be reserved by calling 304-243-4100.

Reynolds releases bill to restore felon voting rights

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is releasing her proposed bill that would restore voting rights for felons through an amendment to the Iowa Constitution.
The language released Tuesday would change Article 2 of the constitution to say a felon gets voting rights back after the sentence is discharged. That means they could vote after serving their prison time and any probation or parole.
It doesn’t include complete repayment of all obligations, including restitution. That’s an issue that could be a problem for some conservative lawmakers who have viewed Reynolds’ proposal with skepticism.
Reynolds says the move would bring Iowa in line with 35 other states that either never take away rights or restore them upon discharge of a sentence.
Iowa and Kentucky are the only states with a broad permanent ban on felons’ voting.