Medical marijuana clears first hurdle in NC Senate

Sen. Bill Rabon speaks in favor of Senate Bill 711 during a Senate Judiciary hearing at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — A proposed medical marijuana law for North Carolina cleared its first significant hurdle on Wednesday as a Senate committee approved bipartisan legislation that creates a patient, manufacturing, licensing and sales structure for its use.

A majority of judiciary committee members agreed on a voice vote for the measure to offer marijuana legally for easing pain and nausea associated with several illnesses and diseases. Some supporters say cannabis use can lessen the severity of their afflictions.

The measure is about giving “some compassionate care for specific ailments, to those people in North Carolina that need it, and to make them law-abiding citizens if they want to be,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican, bill sponsor and cancer survivor. “We need to compassionately care for our fellow man in any way that we can.”

The bill still has to pass through three committees before reaching the Senate floor and would still have to be considered by the House. But Wednesday’s vote offers evidence that support is growing for legalizing marijuana in some form after similar bills have been derailed for a decade — reflecting a national trend toward its acceptance.

Industrial hemp can be grown in North Carolina, and products containing chemicals derived from cannabis but containing very low levels of the compound that creates a high are sold lawfully. North Carolina is among 14 states that don’t permit cannabis products for medical use. The leadership council of the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians agreed in May to legalize small amounts of marijuana for medicinal use on tribal lands.

Under the Senate bill, patients could obtain a state ID card to purchase and possess marijuana if their physician declares in writing they have one of several “debilitating medical conditions” listed and that cannabis could bring health benefits. Those conditions include cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple sclerosis. A special advisory board would have the power to add to the list of conditions.

Qualifying patients could obtain medical cannabis products for smoking or other uses through 10 suppliers licensed by a new state commission. Each supplier would control production from seedlings to sale at “medical cannabis centers” from which to sell to the public. An amendment on Wednesday reduced the maximum number of sales centers for each licensee from eight to four. Suppliers would have to pay 10% of gross revenues monthly to the state.

As with an initial hearing on the bill last week, several members of the public spoke for the measure, including military veterans who said cannabis has eased PTSD symptoms. Other speakers supporting even greater legal access said the measure doesn’t go far enough.

Chris Suttle, a cannabis activist from Chapel Hill, said he wouldn’t have qualified to receive medical marijuana under the bill when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor because it couldn’t immediately be identified as cancer. Suttle said he used medicinal cannabis anyway to reduce the swelling in his brain.

“The way it’s written, this is not the legalization that we deserve in the state we love,” Suttle said. “The extra regulations you are putting on this are not fair to those that have been hurt the worst by the war on drugs.”

Cannabis centers and law enforcement would have access to an online portal to check patient registrations, and an approved amendment would raise penalties against those who misuse medicinal marijuana for drug trafficking. Still, social conservatives again urged opposition to the bill, saying the safety and efficacy of cannabis remain uncertain and don’t meet standards for other lawful drugs, and that the measure will ultimately lead to the legalization of recreational use.

“Smoked marijuana is not medicine,” said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina.

Several Democrats on the committee praised the bill. At least two Republicans on the committee voted no.

Senate Majority Leader Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican, said she probably wouldn’t have supported the bill six months ago. But that changed because she said her husband has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and received cancer treatments.

“Life comes at you fast,” Harrington told colleagues. “I believe we’ve already had some moments in our lives where this type of medication would have assisted in some of the responses to the treatment.” She made the motion to recommend the measure.