North Carolina House lawmakers took up a Senate-passed medical marijuana legalization bill in committee on Tuesday, discussing the reform proposal that advocates hope to see advanced to the floor and the governor’s desk this session.
The legislation from Sen. Bill Rabon (R) passed the Senate in March before being transferred to the House, where it’s now received a hearing in the Health Committee, which took testimony but did not vote on the measure. If the bill ultimately moves through the panel at a subsequent meeting, it would still need to clear two additional committees before reaching the floor.
The chances of that happening this session are “better” than ever before, according to House Speaker Tim Moore (R). While medical cannabis reform has stalled in the chamber in past sessions, he said last month that “there is a decent amount of support” for the issue in his caucus.
Moore previously said that the dynamics around marijuana reform have changed, with “a lot of new members.” He said that more than 50 percent of his chamber now supports medical cannabis and he would “not be surprised at all if that bill moved.”
The bill would allow patients with qualifying conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and multiple sclerosis to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed dispensaries.
On Tuesday, Rabon shared candid personal details about his own experience surviving cancer and using cannabis for treatment. He said that his doctor advised him to use marijuana before he went through serious chemotherapy, and he visited his local law enforcement to tell them that he intended to break the law to use the plant for therapy. Packages of marijuana then regularly showed up in the mail.
After working a full day, he said he’d go home and “take about three puffs of marijuana, and my symptoms would go away before you could bat your eye. I would stay there till the next morning and get up seven o’clock, go to work and I would repeat it.”
“I did that until I completed my chemo,” he said. “That’s the only reason I’m alive today… I know tens of thousands of people in the state that could benefit just as I did.”
Rabon said in response to a question from a committee member that he would be “very willing” to reexamine the list of qualifying conditions and potentially remove some based on feedback from the medical community.
“The purpose of the bill is to allow tightly regulated use of medical cannabis only for those with debilitating illnesses,” the sponsor said. “The recreational sale of marijuana remains illegal under this legislation.”
Several members asked questions of the senator and administrative staff prior to taking public comment from supporters and opponents. The chairman said that he expects the panel will “be discussing this again” at a subsequent meeting.
Here are the key provisions of the medical cannabis legislation, SB 3:
Patients would be allowed to access cannabis if they have a “debilitating medical condition” such as cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Smoking and vaping would also be allowed, but doctors would need to prescribe a specific method of delivery and dosages for patients under the revised legislation. And they would need to reevaluate patients’ eligibility for the program at least once a year.
The bill provides for up to 10 medical marijuana suppliers who control the cultivation and sale of cannabis. Each supplier can operate up to eight dispensaries. That’s double the dispensary cap laid out in the earlier version.
Under the bill, a Compassionate Use Advisory Board would be established, and it could add new qualifying medical conditions.
Separately, a Medical Cannabis Production Commission would be created to ensure that there’s an adequate supply of cannabis for patients, oversee licensing and generate enough revenue to regulate the program.
The measure would further create a North Carolina Cannabis Research Program to “undertake objective, scientific research regarding the administration of cannabis or cannabis-infused products as part of medical treatment.”
There don’t appear to be specific equity provisions that many advocates push for as part of legalization legislation.
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A findings section in the bill states that it’s the intent of the legislature “prioritize the protection of public health and safety in the creation of a system for the cultivation, processing, and selling of medical cannabis.”
Further, “the General Assembly that the regulatory system created by this Article be nimble and able to respond quickly to changes in the rapidly-evolving cannabis industry.”
A poll released in February found that North Carolinians are also ready for the reform, with about three in four voters saying they back medical cannabis legalization.
For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said in December that he thinks a medical marijuana legalization bill “has an opportunity to pass” this session, and he also reiterated his support for broader decriminalization of cannabis possession, noting racial disparities in enforcement.
Cooper’s public support for decriminalization is a relatively recent development. He first openly backed the policy change in October, saying that it’s time to “end the stigma,” while separately announcing steps he’s taken to explore his options for independently granting relief to people with existing convictions.
Following President Joe Biden’s mass pardon announcement in October, which also involved a call to action for governors to provide state-level relief, Cooper said that he’s directed state attorneys to review pardon authority for marijuana offenses.
The governor separately convened a North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that previously recommended decriminalizing marijuana. The report from the panel, which is chaired by state Attorney General Josh Stein (D), also included a recommendation for the state to initiate a study on whether to more broadly legalize cannabis sales.
Under current law, possessing more than half an ounce up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis is a class 1 misdemeanor, subject to up to 45 days imprisonment and a $200 fine. In 2019, there were 3,422 such charges and 1,909 convictions, with 70 percent of those convicted being nonwhite.
Meanwhile, a North Carolina House committee approved a bill this month to create a $5 million grant program to support research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin and MDMA and to create a Breakthrough Therapies Research Advisory Board to oversee the effort.
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