Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Hemp legalizes, support falls short for medical marijuana in NC

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.)
Cannabis-regulation made some headway in N.C. when Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 455 into law June 30, even though the medical marijuana bill has stalled in the House. (Port City Daily/Courtesy CIJ Holdings)

The medical marijuana bill is dead in the water — for now. With the N.C. General Assembly wrapping up its short session, and Senate Bill 711 stuck in the House, the legislation will not move forward at this time, Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), one of its three sponsors, confirmed.

Progress on cannabis-related regulation made some headway, though, as Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 455, also sponsored by Lee, into law late last month. The bill allows for the farming and production of hemp to continue legally, following a five-year pilot program.

READ MORE: Two marijuana bills up for review in NC: Will one finally seal the deal?

SB 711, also known as the Compassionate Care Act, would legalize the sale of cannabis and cannabis-infused products to patients with qualifying conditions and a prescription from a physician. Access would be given to individuals with debilitating conditions such as cancer, PTSD, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and more.

It also could be prescribed for severe or persistent nausea related to end-of-life care or for patients with a terminal illness who have less than six months to live.

Also sponsored by Sens. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), and Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth), the bipartisan legislation made it through four Senate committees before reaching the floor. It passed the Senate in a third reading June 6 with a 36-7 vote and entered the House of Representatives with a first reading on June 8. After being referred to the House committee on rules, calendar and operations, it stalled.

Lee said even though it’s not moving forward at this time, he’s proud of the progress and forward momentum SB 711 has made.

“[It] had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, and even that is surpassed by the support it enjoys among North Carolina voters,” he said.

Cannabis-related bills have faced scrutiny in the past from opponents who say they don’t support medical marijuana because it lacks Federal Drug Administration approval. Some fear it would lead to legalizing recreational use, opening another can of worms for those in opposition.

Lee admitted he’s not really sure why people are still against medical marijuana.

“I would have tried to address it, if I did,” he said.

Lee, among the other bill sponsors, are advocates for medicinal purposes, especially when it comes to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said many of his fellow legislators were moved by testimony last year when veterans addressed the N.C. General Assembly about their experiences.

“It’s the right thing to do for so many who are suffering from debilitating conditions from which they have found no other relief,” Lee told Port City Daily last month.

He added more legislators will likely come to understand the purpose of the bill if they have more time to digest it.

“Public support on this issue is not going away and legislators are now better informed on how this treatment can be administered safely and effectively,” Lee said.

A poll from NORML, a nonprofit public interest advocacy group, shows in May 2022 82% of North Carolina residents support medical marijuana.

While it’s too early to predict what the House might do in future sessions, Lee vows to continue supporting access to medical cannabis. It doesn’t seem to be an issue supporters will drop any time soon.

“I believe as more members take time to dive into the provisions of SB 711 and hear from their constituents who care deeply about its passage, they will agree it should move forward,” he said.

Though the cannabis bill failed in the short session, Lee saw success with Senate Bill 445. Gov. Roy Cooper signed it into law June 30. It permanently exempts hemp and hemp products from the state’s controlled substances act and essentially brings North Carolina into compliance with a federal law already in effect.

The bill passed 85-26 in the House and 41-2 in the Senate.

Schedule VI controlled substances, of which marijuana is a member, are considered government regulated typically due to their ability to become addictive. Hemp refers to the cannabis plant, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of 0.3% or less.

Hemp was legalized in North Carolina in 2017 as part of a temporary pilot program that was set to expire at the end of June 2022. Hemp is used to produce CBD products, as well as textiles, paper and certain food products.

N.C. farmers — roughly 1,500 currently — have been cultivating hemp since 2017 legally since it was outlawed entirely in 1970 when cannabis was placed on the controlled substances list. The industry employs thousands of workers. 

The pilot program was initiated by the passing of the federal Agricultural Act of 2014 and N.C. legislation in 2015, known as the Industrial Hemp Bill. Industrial hemp was removed from the federal controlled substances act in 2018, making it a legal agricultural commodity under the USDA.

“The hemp industry has become a vital part of our state’s economy,” Lee said. “Last week’s overwhelming bipartisan support for the legislation shows that we are committed to supporting the jobs that this industry creates and the products that many people rely on.”. 

The hemp industry yielded $824 million nationwide last year. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension reports hemp farmers can profit up to $40,000 per acre. In 2021, 1,850 acres of hemp were harvested statewide.

Other sponsors of SB 455 include Sens. Danny Britt (R-Columbus, Robeson), Mujtaba Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg), Ernestine Bazemore (D-Beaufort, Bertie, Martin, Northampton, Vance, Warren), Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) and Natalie Murdock (D-Durham)

Tips or comments? Email amy@localdailymedia.com.

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