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Medical marijuana bill slated for next Senate committee step this week
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Medical marijuana bill slated for next Senate committee step this week

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Lawmakers may take another step this week on a Senate bill that would permit the use of medical marijuana for the first time in North Carolina.

The bipartisan Senate Bill 711, titled “NC Compassionate Care Act,” is the latest in a 12-year attempt.

The Senate Finance committee will address the bill at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The committee has canceled the meeting that was set for Tuesday in which SB711 was the only bill on the agenda.

SB711 cleared the Senate Judiciary committee on June 30 after a 65-minute hearing.

It still must clear — in this order — the Finance, Health Care, and Rules and Operations committees before a potential Senate floor vote.

The pathway through the state House could be equally daunting, if not more so, according to political analysts.

The medical marijuana bill may have its best odds yet with Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, 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.

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.

As a primary reason for legalization, the bill says “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.”

Rabon, a cancer survivor, has said SB711 would not serve as a gateway to recreational marijuana use.

“Recreational marijuana use is not something we want in our state,” Lee said, but added that the prohibition should not keep North Carolina from doing the right thing for people with chronic and debilitating conditions.

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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.”

Some advocates for permitting medical marijuana still criticize SB711 for being too restrictive on who can use it, 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, two of which 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.

Background

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.”

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,” he said.

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@rcraverWSJ

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