The North Carolina Senate on Thursday gave initial approval to a bill to legalize medical marijuana.
Just one day after clearing a key Senate committee that is chaired by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Rabon (R), the legislation passed the full chamber on second reading in a 35-10 vote. The NC Compassionate Care Act previously advanced through three separate panels last year.
“This bill is going to, in my opinion, help a lot of people at the end of their life at a time that they need some compassion,” Rabon said on the floor ahead of the vote.
Medical cannabis can help people “at a time that what few days, or what little time they have left, should be as comfortable and as easy as they can be,” the senator, who is a cancer survivor, said. “I think it is our duty as lawmakers to pass legislation that helps people who need our help.”
One more vote on third reading, expected next week, will be required to formally send the measure to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Here’s what the NC Compassionate Care Act as amended 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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Prior to voting on the bill itself on Thursday, the Senate adopted an amendment from Rabon. Among other changes, it makes it so the 10 licensed medical marijuana suppliers that would be permitted could each operate up to eight dispensaries, rather than four as would be the case under earlier versions of the bill. It also clarifies conflict of interest rules for physicians and testing laboratories, revises fees and reporting requirements for medical cannabis businesses and makes technical corrections to the measure.
A separate amendment from Sen. Julie Mayfield (D) sought to direct regulators to consider creating separate license categories to approve “500 growers, 80 manufacturers and 100 retailers” for the medical cannabis program.
“The licensing structure in this bill invites only very large multi-state corporations in to be eligible to participate in this new market,” she said, noting the bill’s vertical integration requirements for the industry. “Indeed, no North Carolina company can get one of the licenses that is created in this bill.”
Mayfield’s amendment was tabled, however.
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.”
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.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.