A Senate-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina is effectively dead this session, with House Republican lawmakers reportedly deciding not to allow it to advance further following an internal caucus vote.
The legislation from Sen. Bill Rabon (R) cleared the Senate earlier this month in a strongly bipartisan vote. But questions were already being raised about its prospects in the House, where GOP leadership had been consistently signaling that they were reluctant to move the legislation this year.
Now, Axios reports that the House GOP’s vote at the closed-door meeting all but seals the fate of the cannabis reform, “giving it a slim chance of becoming law” during the current session.
“We’re disappointed that the Republican caucus did not come to an agreement to move medical cannabis legislation forward,” Kevin Caldwell, Southeast legislative manager for Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment.
“It’s certainly going to hold back patient access to safe, lab-tested medicine for at least six more months—if not longer,” he said, “And we just hope that all parties can agree on legislation that meets the needs of the patients, as well as all the concerns of the stakeholders.”
Rabon’s NC Compassionate Care Act had advanced through four Senate committees before finally reaching the floor. The momentum seemed to bode well for reform, but GOP members reportedly conferenced internally, choosing not to give the bill a committee hearing in the House as the deadline for the legislative session quickly approaches.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R) was among those key lawmakers who downplayed the idea of enacting the legislation this year, saying recently that “there are a lot of concerns with this bill.”
Presumably, those problems could have been raised and potentially addressed if the measure was allowed to go through the committee process in the House, but now it appears that won’t happen.
“I think it’s something that’s going to really require further study,” Moore said earlier this month, echoing comments that he’s made in recent weeks about not wanting to take up the measure until next session. “The Senate brought this bill quickly to the floor. This is one of the more controversial subjects in our in our state and in our nation.”
The comment about the expediency of the Senate’s approach to this legislation is questionable, as it received ample committee consideration going back to July 2021.
Here’s what the NC Compassionate Care Act 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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A recent 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 survey showed an increase in 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, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) 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.”
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.
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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.