The North Carolina Senate gave initial approval a bill to legalize medical marijuana on Tuesday, putting it one additional procedural vote away from being sent to the House shortly after a top lawmaker there said his chamber is positioned to enact the reform this session despite blocking similar legislation last year.
The measure from Sen. Bill Rabon (R) cleared its second reading in the Senate in a 36-10 vote, about a week after it easily sailed through three committees. Third reading passage is expected in the coming days, a step that will formally transmit it to the other body of the legislature.
The legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and multiple sclerosis to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed dispensaries.
The bill “is intended to make only changes to existing North Carolina laws that are necessary to protect patients and their doctors from criminal and civil penalties,” Rabon said on the floor ahead of the vote, and “is not intended to change current civil and criminal laws governing the use of cannabis for non medical purposes.”
It would “allow for tightly regulated use of medical cannabis only by those with debilitating illnesses,” he said. “We have accepted significant input from law enforcement on the bill, and law enforcement will have access to numerous records and databases necessary to verify that patients are eligible and that suppliers are in compliance with the provisions of this bill.”
Advocates have been confident that the legislation will make it through the Senate, as the prior version did during the past session. What’s been less certain is how the GOP-controlled House will approach the issue.
But in a recent podcast interview, House Speaker Tim Moore (R) indicated that he feels the chamber’s new political makeup may give the legislation a pathway for passage.
“I think there’s been a change. We have a lot of new members,” he said, adding that he believes more than 50 percent of lawmakers now back medical cannabis reform. “I would not be surprised at all if that bill moved. I think the odds are more likely than not that something will happen on that.”
That’s a significant change in tone for the speaker, who previously remarked that there were “a lot of concerns” with Rabon’s bill.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) said in an interview with the same podcast that the legislation his chamber advanced last session was “well-constructed” and “addressed a lot of the concerns that people have” while providing a needed treatment option for patients with serious illnesses.
Here are the key provisions of the medical cannabis legislation, SB 3:
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.
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 eight dispensaries. That’s double the dispensary cap laid out in the earlier version.
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.
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 don’t appear to be specific equity provisions that many advocates push for as part of legalization legislation.
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A findings section in the bill states that it’s the intent of the legislature “prioritize the protection of public health and safety in the creation of a system for the cultivation, processing, and selling of medical cannabis.”
Further, “the General Assembly that the regulatory system created by this Article be nimble and able to respond quickly to changes in the rapidly-evolving cannabis industry.”
A poll released last month found that North Carolinians are also ready for the reform, with about three in four voters saying they back medical cannabis legalization.
For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said in December that he thinks a medical marijuana legalization bill “has an opportunity to pass” this session, and he also reiterated his support for broader decriminalization of cannabis possession, noting racial disparities in enforcement.
Cooper’s public support for decriminalization is a relatively recent development. He first openly backed the policy change in October, saying that it’s time to “end the stigma,” while separately announcing steps he’s taken to explore his options for independently granting relief to people with existing convictions.
Following President Joe Biden’s mass pardon announcement in October, which also involved a call to action for governors to provide state-level relief, Cooper said that he’s directed state attorneys to review pardon authority for marijuana offenses.
The governor separately convened a North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that previously recommended decriminalizing marijuana. The report from the panel, which is chaired by state Attorney General Josh Stein (D), also included a recommendation for the state to initiate a study on whether to more broadly legalize cannabis sales.
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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