The latest in a 12-year attempt to legalize the use of medical marijuana in North Carolina may have its best odds yet with a state Senate Republican leader as a primary sponsor.
Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and chairman of Senate Rules and Operations committee, is joined by Sens. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, and Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, as primary sponsors.
Senate Bill 711 was introduced Wednesday. Rabon could not be immediately reached for comment on the bill.
“SB711 says anyone who has a debilitating medical condition can receive a registry ID card or who is a designated caregiver,” Lowe said. “The goal of the bill is to treat chronic pain, and relying less on opioids.”
Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said that “having the powerful Senate Rules committee chairman as a primary sponsor certainly gives the measure a better shot this time around.”
“Sen. Rabon’s endorsement is likely to open some doors that have remained shut in the past.”
Lowe said that “it is important to be working across the aisle for the betterment of North Carolina. Both parties can achieve a lot when we come together.”
SB711 is similar in language to some of the 12 previous Democratic-sponsored medical marijuana bills, which date back to the 2009-10 sessions.
One noticeable difference is the bill’s title, “NC Compassionate Care Act.”
Many of the previous bills carried the title of “Enact Medical Cannabis Act” or “Legalize Medical Marijuana.”
“I suspect that the name choice is designed to focus people’s attention on the reasons bill sponsors are supporting medical marijuana — rather than the political baggage linked to the drug itself,” Kokai said.
“It’s not going to fool anyone. People talking about this bill are going to call it the ‘marijuana bill.’
“But the alternate title might be useful in garnering support from lawmakers who are leery of endorsing what has been an illegal drug for most of their lives,” Kokai said.
SB711 is more concise, at 13 pages of proposed legislation, than the 17- to 19-page medical marijuana bills introduced previously.
“Modern medical research has found that cannabis and cannabinoid compounds are effective at alleviating pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with several debilitating medical conditions,” SB711 lists as a primary reason for the bill.
It notes there are 36 states that have legalized medical marijuana use.
“In enacting this article, North Carolina now takes similar action to preserve and enhance the health and welfare of its citizens,” it says.
“This article is intended to make only those changes to existing North Carolina laws that are necessary to protect patients and their doctors from criminal and civil penalties, and is not intended to change current civil and criminal laws governing the use of cannabis for nonmedical purposes.”
The N.C. Healthcare Association said Thursday it hasn’t taken a stance on past medical marijuana bills and has declined to comment on this version.
An Elon University poll released in February found that 73% of North Carolinians support the medical use of marijuana. That’s down from nearly 80% when the question was asked in 2017.
About 64% of Republicans surveyed said they supported the use of medical marijuana, along with 75% of Democrats.
In a separate but related question, 54% of North Carolina adults support the legalization of the drug for casual use and only 34% oppose it.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, a primary sponsor of marijuana legalization Senate Bill 646, told the News & Observer of Raleigh that while his bill still may be too much for Republican legislative leaders, “I suspect there may be some willingness to give the medical marijuana bill a hearing, and maybe even pass it this session.”
Local legislator response
Members of the Forsyth delegation have mixed perspectives on SB711's potential path through the legislature.
"There are many bills that will be filed, and many will have good members who support them," said Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth.
"This bill has a long way to go, and I doubt it will make it into law."
Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, also expressed some doubt about SB711's chances of advancing.
"I haven’t had an opportunity to study the bill at this point," Krawiec said. "I’m not certain of the chances of passage. I do believe that chances of passage have increased since last session."
Rep. Lee Zachary, R-Yadkin with a portion of western Forsyth, said "I just have difficulty with smoking pot being medically necessary. Marijuana is, in my opinion, a gateway drug.
"You know, opioids were medicines at one time. Opioids still have medical value but, as far as I know, their use is limited because of the dependency issues.
"I just don’t find the legalized use of marijuana acceptable."
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she has been advocating for legalizing medical marijuana most of her legislative career.
Part of her support is personal, she said, citing her sister who died from a brain tumor in 2011.
"I recall conversations with her oncologists about how they found that medical cannabis provided better relief to their patients than the synthetic marinol they prescribed," Harrison said. "We should not be making criminals out of patients seeking relief from their illnesses.
"It makes a huge difference that the Senate Rules chair is the primary sponsor of the bill. That should be a signal that the issue is gaining traction, and hopefully the necessary attraction"
"Finally, there is overwhelming public support for legalization among Republicans and Democrats," Harrison said.
Support for medical marijuana has increased in part because of the opioid addiction crisis in North Carolina, particularly affecting rural areas of the state that tend to be conservative leaning.
Supporters say medical marijuana is a less harmful way to treat individuals in chronic pain rather than using opioids as painkillers.
"I believe there is evidence that states that have legalized medical cannabis have lower rates of opioid abuse," Harrison said.
“Certainly, having bipartisan and influential senators’ support for a medical marijuana legalization bill would be necessary for such a bill to have a chance of becoming law,” said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and a national expert on state legislatures.
“But it would still be unusual, judging from recent history in other states, for a Republican-controlled legislature in the South to pass a law legalizing marijuana in some fashion. Passage of such a bill remains an uphill climb.”
Dinan said that measures to further decriminalize marijuana “may have a greater prospect of success in the General Assembly, though, based on recent statements from the Senate president” Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
Lowe has sponsored several bills in past sessions that would have increased the amount of marijuana an individual can possess before it become subject to a criminal offense.
Medical marijuana bills were submitted: in 2009-10 (House bills 380 and 383); in 2011-12 (House bills 84 and 577); in 13-14 (House Bill 1161); in 2015-16 (House bills 78, 317 and 983); in 2017-18 (House Bill 185 and Senate bills 579 and 648); in 2019-20 (House Bill 401).
In April 2019, the state Senate approved by a 42-4 vote bipartisan Senate Bill 168 that would expand the use of medicinal CBD oil in North Carolina. It had as primary sponsors Sens. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, and Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham. Lowe was a co-sponsor.
It was not taken up by the state House.
State law passed earlier, in 2015, allows CBD oil to be given to children with epilepsy. The oil is made from cannabidiol, a compound found in marijuana plants low in THC, the major intoxicant in marijuana.
SB168 would have allowed CBD oil treatments for all individuals experiencing autism, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and mitochondrial disease.
Lowe said Thursday that the latest bill is more comprehensive than 2019’s SB168 in terms of which individuals could benefit from medical marijuana.
But Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University, says the guidelines for acceptable use of medical marijuana remain narrow in the latest bill.
“I think there is a much better chance than in years past for (legalize medical marijuana) to pass into law,” Madjd-Sadjadi said.
“The fact that both Congress and the White House are controlled by Democrats might also be key to this particular legislation, since federal efforts may go considerably beyond what the state is currently contemplating.”