West Virginia lawmakers have urged colleagues to provide a brighter future for the state by legalizing recreational marijuana sales.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty said it is time for West Virginians to take advantage of the “fastest growing industry in this country”. He is one of 27 Democrats in the West Virginia House of Delegates to write to Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch asking him to fast track an economic study regarding the use of cannabis.

Minority leader Tim Miley said the state would receive a significant tourism boost if it legalized adult-use sales, while Fluharty said it is imperative that lawmakers act during the current legislative session. Failure to do so would risk losing a huge opportunity and allow neighbouring states to prosper at West Virginia’s expense, according to Fluharty.

The state legalized medical cannabis for specific chronic conditions in 2017 and the law went into effect in July 2018. However, patients have not yet been able to access medical marijuana.

The West Virginia Office for Medical Cannabis is now accepting permit applications for medical cannabis growers, processors, dispensaries, and laboratories. The application period will end on Feb. 18, 2020, and once it has assessed the applications it will begin issuing licenses, so it will still be some time before medical sales begin.

It has been estimated that West Virginians will have to wait another three years before they can gain medical marijuana from legal dispensaries. One issue causing delays to the rollout of the program centres on concerns about who will provide banking services for the industry.

Marijuana is illegal for medicinal and recreational purposes at a federal level, meaning cultivators and dispensaries cannot access traditional banks and credit unions. Mike Stuart, U.S. Attorney for West Virginia’s Southern District, has further complicated matters by threatening to prosecute businesses that enter the medical cannabis industry in the state.

The legislature passed a bill called HB 2538 to protect state employees from any potential prosecution and to allow credit unions to bid for the opportunity to work with the state’s industry.

Adult-use cannabis remains outlawed in West Virginia and it has not decriminalized marijuana, meaning even possession of minor amounts is classed as a misdemeanour crime. Advocates say it would boost the state economy by $45 million, remove $17 million in funds spent enforcing marijuana laws and help ease the opioid crisis.