A key North Carolina Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which first heard testimony on the proposal last week, approved the legislation in a voice vote. It must still move through three additional panels before potentially being considered on the floor.
Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon (R) is sponsoring the measure, which would allow patients to access cannabis if they have a “debilitating medical condition” such as cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis. Regulators would have authority to add additional qualifying conditions.
The purpose of the legislation is to “give some compassionate care for specific ailments to those people in North Carolina who need it and to make them law-abiding citizens,” Rabon said ahead of the vote.
“I can tell you that I have been quite moved by this because of my personal experiences,” the senator, who is a cancer survivor, said. “At times it has been difficult for me to talk to some people about that, but I will say again that the time has come—that this needs to be discussed and we need to compassionately care for our fellow man in any way that we can and any way that we can, as a body, make it legal.”
BREAKING: Medical cannabis passes NC Senate Judiciary Committee.
Headed to three more committees. If it passes all of them, then to Senate floor.
Still a battle within GOP, where some members voted no just now in committee.
Outcome remains uncertain.
— Sen. Jeff Jackson (@JeffJacksonNC) June 30, 2021
Majority Leader Kathy Harrington (R), whose husband was recently diagnosed with blood cancer, was one of the aye votes in the panel.
“If you had asked me six months ago if I would support this bill, I would have said no,” she said. “But life comes at you fast.”
Under a substitute amendment adopted by the committee last week, a 13-member Medical Cannabis Advisory Board would be able to “review petitions to add a new debilitating medical condition and have the power to add a new debilitating medical condition,” according to a summary.
Separately, a nine-member Medical Cannabis Production Commission would be established to “provide a safe, regulated supply of cannabis appropriate for medical use by qualified registry identification cardholders; ensure statewide access to safe and affordable cannabis to registry identification cardholders; establish a system that is well regulated, includes a seed to sale tracking system, and is financially viable for suppliers to ensure the highest quality cannabis and cannabis infused products for patients; and generate sufficient revenue for the Commission to oversee and for the Department to maintain and operate the system.”
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The measure would further create a North Carolina Cannabis Research Program “to conduct objective, scientific research regarding the administration of cannabis or cannabis-infused products as part of medical treatment.”
Proud to be a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 711, the bi-partisan NC Compassionate Care Act that creates a pathway for medical cannabis that can help many of our veterans suffering from PTSD. This bill takes a big step today in committee. https://t.co/FooQywSYLL
— Kirk deViere (@kdeviere) June 30, 2021
On Wednesday, members approved three additional amendments. One reduces the number of medical cannabis dispensaries that could be licensed from eight to four and also makes clarifications about how violations of the program would be handled.
Another would enhance penalties for unlawful offenses such as trafficking medical marijuana, applying a more severe punishment than illegally dealing in non-medical cannabis.
An additional revision requires physicians to indicate the approved medical cannabis delivery methods for patients and mandate that dispensary employees access that information when conducting transactions.
The bill must still advance through the Senate Finance, Health Care and Rules and Operations Committees in order to reach the floor.
A majority of North Carolina adults support legalizing marijuana for recreational use—and three in four say it should be legal for medical purposes—according to a poll released in February.
Even though over 75% of the state supports medical marijuana we still have an uphill battle for final passage in the Republican controlled Legislature. Please contact your legislators and encourage them to support SB 711. #ncpol
— Senator Wiley Nickel (@wileynickel) June 30, 2021
North Carolina Families for Medical Cannabis, which represents military veterans and other people who stand to benefit from legalization, has been pushing lawmakers to enact the legislation.
"We're losing 22 #veterans every day to suicide. We need every weapon, every tool at our disposal to stop this." – Sam, veteran and #medicalcannabis advocate. #EveryoneHasAStory. #ncpol #ncga https://t.co/AtTDhdcqhp
— North Carolina Families for Medical Cannabis (@NCFMC1) June 29, 2021
It’s possible that the legislature could see additional action on a variety of cannabis-related bills this year.
A separate medical cannabis bill, adult-use marijuana legalization measures and several pieces of cannabis decriminalization legislation have also been introduced in recent months—though they do not currently have bipartisan cosponsorships and would likely face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled legislature.
While advocates have their doubts about broad reform being enacted in North Carolina this session, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) recently acknowledged that opinions are shifting when it comes to marijuana in the state, and he said that Rabon specifically “for a long time has looked at the issue.”
“I do sense that public opinion is changing on marijuana—both medical and recreational,” Rabon said previously. “I don’t know where the members of the General Assembly are at this time in terms of support for the bill, but it’s something we’ll look at and we’ll see how things move along.”
Pressure to end criminalization is also building regionally.
Neighboring Virginia became the first state in the south to legalize marijuana for recreational use in April, for example. And the sponsor of a South Carolina medical cannabis legalization bill said he’s received assurances from a top Senate leader that his measure will be taken up as the first order of business at the beginning of next year.
A task force convened by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) backed decriminalization as part of a series of policy recommendations on racial equity that were released late last year. The group also said prior cannabis convictions should be expunged and the state should consider whether to more broadly legalize marijuana.
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 Mike Latimer.