Proposed legislation to legalize medical cannabis in North Carolina moved successfully through its second committee vote in the N.C. Senate Wednesday. The bill must clear an additional two Senate committees before moving to a floor vote in the chamber.
The N.C. Compassionate Care Act has marched forward this legislative session, propelled by bipartisan support — including the backing of Rules and Operations Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick. It’s an unprecedented push for cannabis reform, though with strict boundaries, in a state where marijuana bills of all sorts have been regularly rebuffed.
Senators Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, and Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, round out the team of primary sponsors to the bill. Other sponsors include Senate Majority Leader Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, and three Democrats from around the state.
The bill received a favorable vote Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee, with an amendment that the cannabis infrastructure created by the bill be “self-sustaining.” Next up is a hearing in Health Care, then Rabon’s Rules and Operations, then a Senate floor vote before crossing over to the House.
In the two committee hearings held on the bill so far, Lee and Rabon have vouched for the medical potential of cannabis to improve the quality of life for patients with “debilitating medical conditions.” If signed into law as is, the bill would permit doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients diagnosed with conditions like cancer, epilepsy and HIV/AIDS. (Read the full list of debilitating medical conditions at the end of this article.)
Further, a number of military veterans have championed the bill to hesitant lawmakers, citing the destructive effects of the pharmaceutical “combat cocktail” prescribed to some upon returning from war zones.
“Our position on it has always been that we’re aware of the veteran suicide issue,” said Rob Rens, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and New Hanover County resident.
“We know what it is, and we know that opiates, uppers and downers — what we call the combat cocktail — is not having the right effect that it should, and we need to seek out some alternatives.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is listed among the debilitating medical conditions that could warrant a cannabis prescription, “subject to evidence that an applicant experienced one or more traumatic events.” But: “Details of the trauma shall not be required.”
Rens said he took part in about 20 meetings in Raleigh on Wednesday. His central audience has been Republicans, many of them wary that passing the Compassionate Care Act would invite a slippery slope, leading to an eventual legalization of recreational cannabis. Rabon and Lee have been adamant that the bill is solely concerned with the medicinal end.
“I see this as a narrow bill that makes the modest acknowledgment that there’s therapeutic value to the substance for certain conditions,” said UNC School of Government assistant professor Phil Dixon.
Dixon specializes in cannabis through the lens of criminal law. North Carolina has a tricky legal patchwork in this area, he said, since penalties for marijuana possession vary depending on location.
“There are several counties that are not pursuing low-level marijuana possession prosecutions anymore at all,” Dixon said. “In other places they’re still aggressively prosecuting them. That’s a hot mess, and long term, that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with.”
Rabon and Lee have pitched their bill in committee hearings as the most guarded legislation of its type — more controlled than the bills seen in the 36 states that have already approved medical cannabis legislation. Cannabis entrepreneurs would be required to oversee a “seed-to-sale” business model, bearing responsibility for owning the production facilities and dispensaries.
The bill would allow for 10 cannabis suppliers to attain licenses. Each of those entities would be permitted four dispensaries at most, capping the count of medical cannabis dispensaries at 40 statewide. Suppliers will pay a $50,000 license fee to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and a $10,000 annual renewal fee. NCDHHS also gets a 10% cut of all gross revenues.
Now, following the successful hearing in Finance, the bill’s sponsors and proponents look toward the upcoming Health Care hearing.
“I believe several of the 20-some-odd meetings we have scheduled for [Wednesday] will include senators who are on the Health Care committee, and so that is a big part of where we’re going to focus our time and our energy, to discuss any concerns the committee members have there,” said Rens, the USMC veteran.
The benefits of cannabis have long been talked about in veteran circles, said Rens, who sees this bill as a way for North Carolina to make itself the most hospitable state for veterans.
“In military circles, we’ve been talking about it for years. I know people who have been using it for years and years and years, so that way they could not have to go with the opiates, the uppers and the downers and all this other stuff that the VA prescribes you, because that stuff just doesn’t work,” he said.
“It’s a well kept secret in our community, but I guess the cat’s out of the bag now.”
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