Friday, June 14, 2024

Cape Fear Republicans’ weed bill scores first major victory in Senate

A Wilmington-based company hopes to bring a high standard of professional standards and practices to the state's hemp industry -- and, ultimately, the legalized marijuana industry. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy CIJ Holdings, Inc.)
Republican Senators Bill Rabon and Michael Lee are on a quest to bring a tightly-regulated medical marijuana market to North Carolina. (Port City Daily/Courtesy CIJ Holding Inc.)

Momentum is ramping up for a medical cannabis bill championed by two Cape Fear Republicans who are joined in support by a contingent of Democrats. The group of senators are eager to see North Carolina follow the example of most other states by exerting control over medical weed enterprise within its borders. 

The N.C. Compassionate Care Act, SB711, is spearheaded by Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, along with Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted favorably on the bill Wednesday afternoon, marking a historic moment for the consideration of cannabis reform in N.C. and the clearing of the first hurdle in a long fight for the bill’s sponsors. 

From here, the bill moves to three additional committees: finance, healthcare, then rules and operations. 

“As we move forward, we plan to tighten up everything and all loose ends if there are any,” Rabon said during Wednesday’s committee hearing. “The time has come that this needs to be discussed and we need to compassionately care for our fellow man.”

READ MORE: Rabon and Lee’s medical cannabis bill earns bipartisan praise, gets spotlight in committee

Last week, after Rabon, Lee and Lowe first overviewed the bill in the judiciary committee, Senate Majority Leader Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, added her name to the list of bill sponsors. She noted Wednesday that her husband’s recently diagnosed medical condition and the distress he faces spurred her support for the bill. 

SB711 differs from previous attempts at cannabis reform, not only due to its bipartisan backing but also because of its proposed tight grip on any business operations. The bill’s language spells out a strict regulatory framework that will oversee cannabis cultivation from “seed to sale,” with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and new political boards playing integral roles in the proposed cannabis bureaucracy. 

As chairman of the Rules and Operations Committee, Rabon — a self-identified “top five” Senate power player — brings an edge of authority to the medical cannabis scene. Prior to SB711, cannabis proposals were typically the work of Democrats. 

A cancer survivor himself, Rabon has said individuals with debilitating medical conditions deserve every available opportunity for a better quality of life: including cannabis. (Read the list of “debilitating medical conditions” that qualify patients for medical cannabis cards at the end of this article). 

Lee, an accomplished practicing attorney in land-use law and other scenes, has emphasized the strict guidelines to be imposed on dispensaries, if the bill becomes law. 

“There are some states that have medical marijuana, that in my opinion is tantamount to recreational, to be honest with you,” Lee said at the hearing. 

Multiple anti-legalization advocates spoke out against the bill Wednesday, calling it unscientific and a stepping stone to recreational cannabis. Pro-cannabis public speakers said the bill doesn’t do enough; they implored senators to widen the scope of the bill and include more approved debilitating medical conditions. Veterans, too, spoke on the hardships of returning to civilian life and their desire to see medical cannabis legalized to ease that transition.

Bill sponsors have emphasized at hearings that SB711 is among the most regulated cannabis bills to be proposed in the United States. Its language enumerates a tight list of qualifying conditions, excluding those like chronic pain, opioid dependency and anxiety. 

Cannabis bills of all stripes have long been silenced in the North Carolina legislature, which has stood by as nearly 40 states across the country have adopted some sort of medical cannabis system through legislation or ballot referendums. 

Prospective cannabis entrepreneurs would be required to own both production facilities and dispensaries, according to the bill. The number of suppliers statewide will be capped at 10, and those businesses are limited to four dispensaries each at most. (A previous version of the bill allowed the suppliers up to eight dispensaries each). Suppliers will pay a $50,000 license fee to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and a $10,000 annual renewal fee. NCDHHS also gets a 10% cut of all gross revenues. 

This is the list of conditions that would allow one to procure a medical cannabis prescription pursuant to the Compassionate Care Act. The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board would have the power to add new conditions to the list with a majority vote. “Chronic pain,” was deliberately excluded from the list. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NCGA)

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