A top North Carolina lawmaker says that he’s “very sure” that a Senate-passed medical marijuana legalization bill will not advance in the House this session—even amid strong-arm tactics launched by the other chamber to force the issue—though he said legislators would likely return to it during next year’s short session.
House Majority Leader John Bell (R) said in an interview with Spectrum News on Monday that there’s “still discussions going on” about the cannabis measure, but Republican lawmakers “unfortunately did not have the votes to move forward in the House.”
“I’m very sure you won’t see that bill move this session,” he said. “But we do have a group of members that are very passionate about it. They’re continuing working through that bill, and I do think it’ll get to come back in the short session.”
“It’s a policy change—a major policy change here in the state—and there’s passion on both sides,” Bell said. “We have members of our caucus that are 100 percent supportive of it and we have other members that are 100 percent against it. And so [lawmakers are] trying to find an agreement if there even is an agreement.”
House Speaker Tim Moore (R), who supports the cannabis legislation and seemed optimistic about its prospects earlier in the session, has said that he’s sticking with his policy of not bringing bills to the floor that don’t have majority support within the GOP caucus.
But the Republican sponsor of the bill, Sen. Bill Rabon (R), showed he wouldn’t go down without a fight after pushing for the reform over multiple sessions. As the bill stalled after passing the Senate in March, he successfully attached an amendment to an unrelated House measure that made its effective date contingent on the enactment of medical cannabis legalization.
Rabon didn’t rule out taking the same action on other House bills to force consideration of the cannabis measure.
Then he took an extra step, including medical marijuana regulatory appointments for the yet-to-be-enacted program in a separate measure that passed the Senate last month.
Meanwhile, Sen. Paul Lowe (D), who is cosponsoring Rabon’s bill, told The Raleigh News & Observer that, in his view, “by no means” is the legislation “dead.”
“I think there are some members of [the House GOP] caucus that are reevaluating things and looking at it, and I think they’re gonna come around,” he said, though he added that sharing details about where specific lawmakers stand “would kill what I’m trying to do.”
“If we don’t finish it in the long session, we’ll deal with it in the short session” next year, he said. “I feel pretty confident about it.”
Rabon’s bill, which did receive a hearing in the House Health Committee in May, 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.
I was pleased to have recently joined @LorettaBoniti on @NCCapTonight to discuss the latest on the #ncga legislative session. Watch the full interview here: https://t.co/1W0AMIpUVR #ncpol pic.twitter.com/IhsDdq9DtU
— Rep. John Bell (@JohnBellNC) July 10, 2023
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 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 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.
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 in June 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.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.