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North Carolina Senate And House Battle Over Medical Marijuana Bill’s Fate, With Other Legislation As Collateral Damage



As a North Carolina Senate-passed medical marijuana legalization bill hangs in the balance in the House, the GOP Senate sponsor is taking a novel approach to pressure the opposite chamber to act by holding an unrelated piece of legislation hostage.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R) confirmed recently that there’s a lack of consensus around the medical cannabis measure, SB 3, in his caucus and said “it will not come up for a vote” unless a majority of Republican members in his chamber indicate they support it.

But Sen. Bill Rabon (R), who has consistently fought for the reform over recent sessions, isn’t giving up on his legislation. And to drive that point home, he attached an amendment to a mostly technical House bill on Wednesday to make it so it would become effective “only if, and on the date that, Senate Bill 3, 2023 Regular Session, becomes law.”

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the amendment in a 36-8 vote before advancing the underlying measure back to the House.

It’s not yet clear how the other body will respond to the Senate move to attach the medical cannabis language to the unrelated bill that deals with allowing physician assistants to practice without supervision by a physician in some circumstances—though Rabon has suggested he is considering targeting other legislation as well to further emphasize the point.

“Maybe some folks will kind of look up and pay attention now,” he told WUNC. “We have work to be done, we don’t need to stonewall… They’re both healthcare bills, and I think they both should be passed this session.”

But the move has at least influenced the conversation at a time when the expectation was that the bill was effectively dead for yet another session.

“We thought the medical marijuana bill was dead. But WAIT! Senate Rules Chair & sponsor of SB3 used an usual (and boss) move to push [House Republicans] to stop blocking it,” Sen. Natasha Marcus (D) wrote on Wednesday. “[Senate Democrats] helped pass the Amendment. They get their bill when we get ours. Ball’s in your court NCHouse.”

The measure, which cleared the Senate in March and received a hearing in the Health Committee last month, 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 bill were “better” than ever before, despite his latest remarks casting doubt on the prospects of bringing it to the floor this year.

Moore had 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 last month’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.

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.

Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

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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 last 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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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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