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Friday, May 24, 2024

As medical marijuana bill progresses, some fear it’s gateway to recreational legalization

Sen. Bill Rabon shared his personal anecdote of relieving symptoms from cancer treatments using marijuana, as house health committee members questioned the senator on Senate Bill 3, which would legalize medical cannabis use.

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Sponsors of legislation that would legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes have been adamant the move would not lead to open use, despite some pushback from opposers in the House and the public.

READ MORE: 6 years, 200 committees: Cape Fear senators continue to push medical cannabis bill

As members of the North Carolina house health committee lobbed some hard-hitting questions about the N.C. Compassionate Care Act Tuesday, one representative encouraged his peers to visit what’s being done in other areas. 

Senate Bill 3 was introduced for the second year in a row by local Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick, Columbus and New Hanover), and Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth). The proposed legislation would regulate marijuana within North Carolina to allow physicians — certified and educated in cannabis use — to prescribe patients with certain debilitating conditions legal use of the drug.

North Carolina is only one of 11 states that has not passed any legislation legalizing the drug — for either medicinal or recreational purposes. Thirty-eight states, including Washington D.C., have passed similar legislation, including Mississippi. 

Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) said a trip with a dozen other legislators to the Magnolia State’s cannabis operations was confirmation on how secure the industry can be. 

“I’ve been in fact-finding mode,” he said. “We visited what Mississippi had done setting up this controlled environment, with a large warehouse, a series of greenhouses with strong regulation and strong security. We were given a comprehensive review.”

As the former president of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, Lambeth said he’s been on the fence, as many constituents have reached out urging him to consider the bill.

“It seems like the biggest issue speaking against is [if] this is a step toward recreational marijuana,” Lambeth said. “Actually, go see how well this is regulated and controlled and the environment it’s grown in. It gives you a different perspective.”

He added even the dust — which is the most highly potent part of the plant — on the greenhouses’ floors has to be tracked and inventoried. 

“There’s no question on accountability,” Lambeth said.

Mississippi is one of a handful of states, including Hawaii, Florida, Utah and Oklahoma, to legalize medical marijuana but have yet to pass it for recreational use.

Primary sponsor Rabon said their operations were all reviewed when drafting the N.C. Compassionate Care Act. 

While Mississippi and Oklahoma didn’t set a cap on the number of statewide licenses for cannabis operations, others did. Hawaii allows for eight; Utah has seven.

Senate Bill 3 would limit North Carolina to only 10 licenses available to roll out what is supposed to be a “self-funded” medical cannabis supply system. 

Each licensee, after paying a nonrefundable $50,000 fee, would run operations seed to sale. Another $5,000 per facility is required with annual renewal fees.

“The 10 licenses relate to a vertically integrated supplier system and is intended to keep the medical cannabis supply system highly regulated,” Lee wrote to PCD. Essentially, it means one person is handling the whole operation, from growing, cultivating, distributing and selling.

“Consistent with the approach of starting with a highly regulated, quality focused process, 10 licenses seemed to be a reasonable place to start,” Lee added.

Each license holder will be able to operate up to eight distribution facilities, meaning there could be 80 total distribution centers across the state. Discussions about how much money it could bring to the state has not yet been discussed.

The bill also promotes equitable distribution to ensure anyone wanting to access the medication is able. At least one dispensary from each license owner must be in a tier 1, or economically distressed, county.

Rep. Mary Belk (D-Mecklenburg) inquired as to whether someone could apply for a license just to be a grower.

“This is not a farming operation, like tobacco, corn, soybeans,” Rabon responded. “It’s a tightly regulated, controlled greenhouse environment. And pretty doggone high-tech.”

He’s also been adamant this legislation does not mean recreational use would be legal. Each time Rabon has introduced the bill on the floor, he starts off by ensuring the audience: “It’s important to understand what this bill does and does not do.”

S.B. 3 lists 14 conditions that would qualify for medical use, including cancer, epilepsy, HIV, AIDS, ALS, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, Parkinson’s, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, wasting syndrome, severe or persistent nausea, a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than six months, and a condition resulting in hospice care.

Rep. Tim Reeder asked if Rabon would be open to reconsidering some of the currently included conditions. He used the example of HIV.

“That disease, if you take your medicine, your life expectancy is similar to the rest of the population,” Reeder said. “Not all are debilitating. The data on use of marijuana for some of these is not very extensive.”

Rabon answered, while the bill was formulated with input from the medical society, he would be open to additional considerations in terms of eligible conditions.

He also said the Compassionate Use Advisory Board, comprising 11 members with medical background appointed by the governor, will be given discrepancy to what’s considered eligible under the law.

When it comes to actually prescribing a patient with cannabis, it’s a bit murky for some legislators.

Rep. Donnie Loftis (R-Gaston) was concerned someone with a medical marijuana prescription would be afforded leniency while driving under the influence. He also questioned what happens if someone tests positive on a drug test for job interviews.

Rabon explained it would be no different than taking a controlled substance, such as oxycontin.

“The bill does not change existing laws governing driving under the influence or workplace incidents,” Lee wrote to PCD. “The bill also specifically provides that it shall not be construed to permit the operation of any vehicle, aircraft, train, or boat while under the influence of cannabis.”

North Carolina resident Corrine Gasper shared her story about how her daughter was killed by a man driving under the influence of “medical marijuana.” She urged the representatives to not vote the bill through.

When PCD reached out to Loftis for further clarification on his questioning, he pointed to how the substance would be measured within an individual’s system per the prescribed dosage.

“Two puffs in the morning and one joint in the evening?” he asked. “If it is currently not an FDA-approved drug, how will daily doses or a prescription be provided to the patient?”

Lee told PCD because cannabis is not federally authorized, physicians would issue written certifications to patients that provide the following information: “debilitating medical conditions and the amount or dosage of the cannabis or cannabis-infused product.”

He also said the dosage would vary depending on the medical condition and physicians’ determination. Qualifying patients would receive 30-day supplies at a time.

For Rabon, a cancer survivor, it was “three puffs” in the middle of the afternoon. The 71-year-old senator was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer at age 48 and given 18 months to live.

Rabon said three months into chemotherapy, he didn’t feel any different. He relayed to the House committee how he told his doctor, “You have 12 months to cure me or kill me.”

The doctor’s responded he would essentially push more intensive treatment. Then followed up with “You’re going to need to get some good marijuana.”

Rabon explained he returned to Brunswick County and spoke with local law enforcement.

“‘I’m going to have to buy drugs illegally to stay alive and I want you to know it,’” he remembered telling them. “And I never bought the first drug. It just appeared in my mailbox on an as-needed basis.”

Rabon continued to work as the county’s first veterinarian, where he’s a partner at Brunswick, Southport and Oak Island animal hospitals, while undergoing treatment. But around 2 p.m. each day would “get so nauseated” he would have to go home and “light up a joint.”

“Three puffs of marijuana and my symptoms would go away before you could bat your eye,” he said. “I did that until I completed chemo; it’s the only reason I’m alive today. There’s no science behind it, but I know tens of thousands of people could benefit as I did.”

During public comment, David Evans with the North Carolinians Against Legalizing Marijuana wasn’t sold.

A three-time cancer survivor, Evans said he “sympathizes” with tales about marijuana relieving symptoms; however, he stressed medicine is not decided by “anecdotes or stories,” rather it’s based on science.

“You’re not the FDA,” he said. “You’re not qualified to be making this decision.”

Evans added there are many negative aspects to using marijuana and all the listed conditions that would be eligible for medical purposes, “have weak evidence” that cannabis is helpful in managing symptoms.

“Ultimately, it does lead to legalization,” Evans said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 10% likelihood of being addicted to marijuana and states there is limited evidence suggesting marijuana increases the risk of using other drugs.

A version of the N.C. Compassionate Care Act has been presented before the General Assembly for two years and faced feedback from nearly 200 committees. 

The House committee did not vote on the bill Tuesday; it was only on the agenda for discussion. A final decision must be made before the session convenes in August.

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