A bill that would permit the use of medical marijuana in North Carolina cleared the first committee step Wednesday on a long, daunting and controversial legislative journey.
The bipartisan Senate Bill 711, titled “NC Compassionate Care Act,” is the latest in a 12-year attempt to permit some uses of medical marijuana.
The Senate Judiciary committee spent about 65 minutes on the bill, which followed 45 minutes during a discussion-only presentation on June 23.
SB711 still must clear — in order — the Finance, Health Care and Rules and Operations committees before a potential Senate floor vote.
Yet, it may have its best odds yet with Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and chairman of Rules and Operations committee, as one of its three primary sponsors, along with Sens. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, and Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.
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Bill sponsors and other senators supporting SB711 said it represents what Sen. Wally Nickel, D-Wake, called “the most conservative and restrictive medical marijuana bill in the country.” There are 36 states that permit some form of medical marijuana use.
“This bill is narrowly tailored to offer medical marijuana to those with legitimate medical needs,” Nickel said.
SB711 lists as a primary reason for the bill that “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.”
“In enacting this article, North Carolina now takes similar action to preserve and enhance the health and welfare of its citizens.”
Rabon, a cancer survivor, has said SB711 would not serve as a gateway to recreation marijuana use.
“Recreational marijuana use is not something we want in our state, but that should not keep us from doing the right thing for those dealing” with chronic and debilitating conditions, Lee said.
Lee said SB711 also could be applied as an educational tool about overall marijuana use for teens and young adults.
“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.”
Lowe said he views SB711 as North Carolina taking another step in applying medical technology to improve quality of life for patients.
“Some people need certain kind of help to get better, and we should do all that is necessary to help them,” Lowe said.
Lowe said bill sponsors reviewed legislation in piecing together SB711.
“We realized that for some states, it has worked out well, while for others it was just a recreational product,” Lowe said. “That’s not the goal with this particular bill on our state.”
Rabon said on June 23 that “to some people, it is a contentious issue, and to some people it is not.”
“I happen to be one who it is not. I know how rough it is to go through chemo and how bad it is to wake up every day and think it may be your last day on Earth.
“There is nothing less compassionate on this Earth than to watch a person you love suffer when there is something that can ameliorate that suffering.”
Rabon said that legalizing medical marijuana isn’t guaranteeing that those who could use it “will live a day longer.”
“But I can say that every day they are alive, they will live better.”
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Wednesday’s debate drew — as expected — impassioned advocacy from lawmakers and members of the public including cancer survivors and military veterans.
There were 11 public speakers, two of whom spoke in opposition to SB711 and the other in support.
However, some of those advocates criticized SB711 for being too restrictive and for not putting enough emphasis on the mental health aspect of debilitating health conditions.
Others spoke against the amendment that reduces the number of medical cannabis centers in North Carolina from eight to four, of which two of those would be located in one of the state’s 20 Tier 1 counties — likely Mecklenburg and in the Triangle.
Forsyth and Guilford counties are in Tier 2.
Several public speakers addressed the fact that they or their loved ones have accessed medical marijuana from states where it is legal and bought it to North Carolina where the use of it is illegal.
Some mentioned their belief that medical marijuana could help reduce the suicide rate in North Carolina, particularly among military veterans.
“Our veterans are suffering from all sorts of things, and medical marijuana might become part of our medical toolbox to help those folks,” Lowe said.
Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, repeated her comment that North Carolina needs “to stop making criminals out of caregivers who are trying to do what’s right for their family member.”
The Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League said he opposed the bill because of concerns it could eventually lead to the legal use of recreational marijuana in the state.
Creech cited several studies that documented the addictive nature of marijuana, that there is not a Food and Drug Administration approved use of medical marijuana, and that there was no conclusive proof that it performs better for pain relief compared with legally prescribed pain medications.
Creech said he hoped senators “will see through the haze” about marijuana’s effectiveness.
He challenged the committee members to view SB711 as “opening Pandora’s box. A judicious decision would be to keep the door closed.”
SB711 is similar in language to some of the 12 previous Democratic-sponsored medical marijuana bills, which date back to the 2009-10 sessions.
None of those bills, including House Bill 401 in the 2019 session, advanced out of the first committee step. House Bill 1161 in 2014 would have amended the state Constitution to legalize usage.
Many of the previous bills carried the title of “Enact Medical Cannabis Act” or “Legalize Medical Marijuana.”
“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,” according to SB711,
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.
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.”