A North Carolina official has now been appointed to serve on a medical cannabis commission that doesn’t even formally exist yet under state law. The problem is, the medical marijuana program itself hasn’t been approved, as a bill to enact legalization stalled out in the legislature this year.
Sen. Bill Rabon (R), who sponsored a medical marijuana legalization measure that passed the Senate but failed to advance in the House during the first half of the two-year session, included a Medical Cannabis Production Commission appointment in a broader measure in July—a way to signal his seriousness about establishing the overall reform.
Now that the appointments legislation was approved by both chambers last week and has been enacted into law, Stephen Windham is cleared to fill a position on a medical marijuana commission that isn’t yet real. If and when medical cannabis is actually legalized, he will serve a term through July 1, 2027.
The legalization bill that the House has so far declined to pass would task the commission with ensuring an adequate supply of medical marijuana for patients and overseeing cannabis business licensing.
It’s possible that Windham could eventually be part of an actual commission if the legislature takes back up the underlying legalization bill from Rabon back up and passes it next year.
The legislation advanced through the Senate in March. But while it was considered in committee in the House, there’s an informal rule that requires a majority of the GOP caucus to support a bill in order to bring it to the floor. House Majority Leader John Bell (R) said last month that, “unfortunately,” the cannabis measure didn’t muster enough support this round, though he predicted it would come back up next year.
Rabon has been leading this fight for years, and he employed new tactics this past session to try and pressure the opposite chamber to act on the reform.
For example, as the legalization bill stalled in the House, the senator successfully attached an amendment to an unrelated House measure that made its effective date contingent on the enactment of medical cannabis reform.
As written, his legalization 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.
The House speaker previously said that he felt the chances of passage for the medical cannabis bill were “better” than ever before, despite his more recent remarks this summer casting doubt on the prospects of bringing it to the floor this year.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R) had also 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.”
At May’s House committee hearing, 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.
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.
The 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 said that it was 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 last year, 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.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.