The North Carolina General Assembly is considering a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.
Senate Bill 711, the N.C. Compassionate Care Act, would create a network of dispensaries to provide medical marijuana for people with debilitating medical conditions like cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
“The purpose of this act is to carefully regulate the use of medical cannabis as a treatment of debilitating diseases,” said longtime Republican Sen. Bill Rabon, a lead sponsor of the bill. He spoke during a hearing at the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
Patients with conditions listed in the bill could get a prescription to buy medical marijuana from a dispensary that would be regulated by state public health officials.
Three dozen states in the country already have laws that allow medical marijuana, Rabon said. The bill he is proposing for North Carolina would be the tightest law in the country, he said.
Marijuana will be legal just to the north in Virginia starting on July 1. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in western North Carolina, recently voted to legalize medical marijuana on tribal land, the first legal weed in the state.
“To some people, it is a contentious issue, to some, it is not,” Rabon said. “I happen to be one that it is not.”
Rabon told the committee about his own cancer diagnosis.
“There’s nothing less compassionate on this earth than to watch a person on this earth suffer when there’s something that can ameliorate, at least, that suffering,” he said. “I’m not going to say that they will live a day longer. But I can say this, every day they’re alive, they’ll live better.”
“It is time to bring this forward,” Rabon said.
Several veterans spoke during the hearing about how medical marijuana had helped them overcome combat injuries and PTSD after they returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I have seen both sides of cannabis, while working in law enforcement and as a sufferer of chronic pain and PTS due to injuries sustained in service to my country and my community,” Josh Biddicks, a retired police officer and combat veteran, told the committee.
“I am not a special interest,” he said. Biddicks said at one time, Veterans Affairs prescribed him 23 different medications to deal with his ailments. But the drugs had “side effects that made life unbearable at times.”
“I have personally looked down the barrel of my own service weapon,” he said. “I almost became one of the 22 veterans who commit suicide daily in our country.”
“I personally have seen tremendous relief with cannabis as an alternative natural supplement,” he said. “A cure-all? No. But a natural path to relief from the symptoms, not laying in the bed all day on muscle relaxers so strong that I cannot spend time with my wife.”
Most of the members of the public at the hearing spoke in favor of the bill.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, spoke against medical marijuana. He cited a study that found medical marijuana laws led to more marijuana use overall.
“Medical and recreational marijuana legalization are blurred lines,” he told the committee.
“The recreational sale of marijuana will still remain illegal in this state,” Rabon said.
The bill would establish a new medical advisory board and a commission on marijuana production in North Carolina, both would be part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The bill allows 10 licenses statewide to be issued for suppliers, and those suppliers can each only operate four medical marijuana dispensaries.
“If you are a licensee, you are required to essentially manage the 'seed to sale’ process,” said Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican and a sponsor of the bill.
“The idea behind only having 10, the idea behind having one licensee being responsible for ‘seed to sale’ is to really tightly regulate an area that states have done wildly different things in,” Lee said.
The dispensaries cannot have big signage like they do in other states. The bill dictates what dispensaries can look like and what packaging can look like.
“The products have to be designated, marketed, packaged in a manner that is appropriate for medicinal product. It cannot resemble a commercially sold candy or other type of food that’s typically marketed to children,” Lee said.
Doctors would have to be certified to give marijuana prescriptions and patients would have several hoops to jump through before they can get medicinal pot.
Those conditions include cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, PTSD and multiple sclerosis.
The bill still has a long way to go, including getting through four different committees in the North Carolina Senate.
The hearing in the Judiciary Committee was just a first step. The committee heard from the public and senators got to ask questions about the proposal, but the bill will still have to come back for a vote.
The committee chair did not say when the bill could be back for senators to vote on whether or not it should proceed.