A bill to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina is heading to the Senate floor following a key committee vote on Wednesday.
The legislation, which already passed through three panels late last year, was approved by the Senate Rules and Operations Committee in a voice vote.
Sen. Bill Rabon (R), who chairs the panel, is also the sponsor of the measure, titled the NC Compassionate Care Act.
“It is my opinion that no state has done it as well as we are attempting to do it,” Rabon told colleagues before the committee vote. He called the bill the “tightest, best-written” cannabis legislation in any state, saying that he studied other programs across the country to see “what they did wrong.”
“It is nothing more than trying to help people with the care that they need and augment their treatments as decided upon by a patient and by a physician,” Rabon said.
Before the vote to send the legislation to the floor, members discussed a possible future amendment to the bill that would make it so the 10 licensed medical marijuana suppliers that would be permitted could each operate up to eight dispensaries, rather than four as currently allowed.
Floor action is expected as soon as Thursday. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) recently told reporters that he intends to vote for the bill.
Here’s what the NC Compassionate Care Act as amended throughout the committee process would accomplish:
Patients would be allowed to access cannabis if they have a “debilitating medical condition” such as cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The committee substitute adopted in in August by the Senate Judiciary Committee changed the list somewhat to allow patients with terminal illnesses and have six months to live, as well as those with conditions resulting in hospice care, to also qualify for cannabis.
Patients could possess up to one and a half ounces of marijuana, but home cultivation would not be permitted.
The definition of what constitutes a “cannabis-infused” product was also changed in the latest substitute version. Such products include “a tablet, a capsule, a concentrated liquid or viscous oil, a liquid suspension, a topical preparation, a transdermal preparation, a sublingual preparation, a gelatinous cube, gelatinous rectangular cuboid, lozenge in a cube or rectangular cuboid shape, a resin or wax.”
Smoking and vaping would also be allowed, but doctors would need to prescribe a specific method of delivery and dosages for patients under the revised legislation. And they would need to reevaluate patients’ eligibility for the program at least once a year.
The bill provides for up to 10 medical marijuana suppliers who control the cultivation and sale of cannabis. Each supplier can operate up to four dispensaries.
Under the bill, a Compassionate Use Advisory Board would be established, and it could add new qualifying medical conditions.
Separately, a Medical Cannabis Production Commission would be created to ensure that there’s an adequate supply of cannabis for patients, oversee licensing and generate enough revenue to regulate the program.
Advocates are still hoping to see further revisions to expand the proposed program and promote social equity.
The measure would further create a North Carolina Cannabis Research Program to “undertake objective, scientific research regarding the administration of cannabis or cannabis-infused products as part of medical treatment.”
There are also protections for patients included in the latest version. It stipulates that employees and agents of the state must treat possession of cannabis for qualified patients the same as any other prescribed controlled substance.
Further, the bill includes limitations on where marijuana can be smoked or vaped, and includes restrictions on the locations and hours of operation for medical cannabis businesses. It also allows regulators to place a “limitation on the number of written certifications a physician may issue at any given time.”
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Meanwhile, new poll from the Carolina Partnership for Reform found that 82 percent of North Carolina voters are in favor of legalizing medical cannabis—including 75 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of unaffiliated voters and 86 percent of Democrats.
A separate question found that 60 percent of voters back adult-use legalization.
The new survey shows a rise in increase for support for medical cannabis legalization since voters were prompted with the question earlier this year, with the results showing that with three in four say patients should have access to marijuana for medical use.
While advocates have their doubts about broad reform being enacted in North Carolina this session, the Senate leader, Berger, has acknowledged that opinions are shifting when it comes to marijuana in the state, and he said that Rabon specifically “for a long time has looked at the issue.”
“I do sense that public opinion is changing on marijuana—both medical and recreational,” Rabon said previously. “I don’t know where the members of the General Assembly are at this time in terms of support for the bill, but it’s something we’ll look at and we’ll see how things move along.”
If the legislation clears the Senate this week it will still need to pass the House of Representatives before potentially advancing to the governor’s desk.
A task force convened by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) backed decriminalization as part of a series of policy recommendations on racial equity that were released in 2020. The group also said prior cannabis convictions should be expunged and the state should consider whether to more broadly legalize marijuana.
Under current law, possessing more than half an ounce up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis is a class 1 misdemeanor, subject to up to 45 days imprisonment and a $200 fine. In 2019, there were 3,422 such charges and 1,909 convictions, with 70 percent of those convicted being nonwhite.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.