NC medical marijuana legalization bill gets hearing in Senate

Cannabis grows at a Qualla Enterprises LLC greenhouse on Cherokee land in Western NC.

Cannabis grows at a Qualla Enterprises LLC greenhouse on Cherokee land in Western NC.

QUALLA ENTERPRISES LLC

A plan to allow marijuana for medical use in North Carolina had its first public airing in front of a newly elected crop of state lawmakers on Wednesday, with debate centering on whether North Carolinians would be able to enter the new industry.

Senate Bill 3, the “Compassionate Care Act,” would legalize medical marijuana for people who have cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other ailments. Those do not include chronic pain, and the drug would not be allowed for recreational use.

The bill would also create a new advisory board, consisting of 11 members, to review which new medical conditions can be added for approved use. A separate 11-member board would approve, suspend or revoke licenses for suppliers of marijuana.

Republican Sens. Bill Rabon and Michael Lee, as well as Democratic Sen. Paul Lowe, sponsored the bill and told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that it would help North Carolinians while also protecting public safety through regulations.

The intent of the bill, Rabon said, “is to only make changes to existing state law that are necessary to protect patients and their doctors from criminal civil penalties, and would not intend to change current civil and criminal laws governing the use of marijuana for non medical purposes.”

Lawmakers did not make changes to the bill, which will be heard again in the same committee next week with the possibility for amendments, according to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Danny Britt.

Licensing fees for medical marijuana

Under the bill, applicants for a license to supply the drug would need to have been a state resident for at least two years and be the majority owner of each medical cannabis center and production facility under their operation. The bill also requires first-year suppliers to pay a $50,000 nonrefundable license fee and $5,000 for each facility. For renewal, suppliers must pay at least $10,000, plus $500 per new production facility and $100 for each existing facility.

Sen. Lisa Grafstein said she was concerned about the licensing fee, which requires a “pretty substantial investment. And so presumably it’s going to be some national organizations that have to be involved in some of this work.”

“I’m wondering as we look forward into the future, potentially for there to be more licenses, whether there’s a potential to have an easier or a more viable path for local farmers and local producers to to be involved in their local community so that we can make sure that North Carolina businesses are benefiting as well,” Grafstein, a Wake County Democrat, said.

Rabon answered that this was “going to be a very expensive process for anyone to get into, very expensive.”

He said applicants for licenses should be sure they’re committed for the long haul. “We don’t want to put an idea out there, ‘oh, this is something that I can do part-time,’” he said.

Grafstein also said she was concerned that though a large part of ownership must be in-state, profits may go out of state.

Lee said that “a person has to have skin in the game. They’re here, they live here. They love North Carolina.” He said much would come down to the arrangements that these local individuals make with private parties, who may be national.

“Hopefully, we’ll have the negotiating ability to kind of work through that and make sure that a lot of that funding stays here,” Lee said.

Contention over medical marijuana bill

Last year, a medical marijuana bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support but died in the House.

Speakers in the Senate committee Wednesday made clear that opposition has not entirely faded away.

Social conservatives stressed the potential harms of marijuana.

Jere Royall, director of community impact and counsel for the North Carolina Family Policy Council, spoke against the bill, saying that “we all want to be compassionate and to help people in need” but “numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects avail” such as “drug abuse and addiction, change in brain function, lung disease, intoxication and impaired driving, developmental interference, impaired cognition, psychological illness, cardiovascular abnormalities, negative social functioning effects,” he said.

Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said he was “not a physician, but neither are the sponsors of this bill or most senators who might vote for it.”

“There is no consensus by qualified medical expert organizations that marijuana is a medicine,” Creech said.

Creech, who said he was quoting the Journal of the American Medical Association, said that “If marijuana is to be used for medical purposes, it should be subjected to the same evidence-based review and regulatory oversight as other medications prescribed by physicians.”

Activists favoring legalization, though, said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Chris Suttle said that the way the bill was written right now, he would not qualify for medicinal marijuana use, “nor would I have qualified six years ago when I had my brain tumor scare, so I had to become a criminal in the state I love to be here today with a clean bill of health and a passion inside me.”

Suttle also asked lawmakers to stop using the term “chronic pain” and to instead use the term “opioid reduction therapy.”

“If you do not want to continue taking opioids, then you should be allowed to have medicinal cannabis be one of the solutions that you can look at with your physician,” he said.

For people to legally purchase medical marijuana under the bill, they would need to obtain a registry identification card from a physician, which they would need to show to law enforcement if requested. The state Department of Health and Human Services will create “a secure, confidential, electronic database containing information about qualified patients, designated caregivers, and physicians,” according to the bill.

The bill also would create new criminal charges for crimes specific to a medical cannabis center or facility. Legislative researchers studied these charges but were unable to make predictions about their use because of a lack of past data on medical marijuana.

The bill would not apply any sales tax on cannabis products sold by medical cannabis centers.

If the bill passes the Senate, prospects in the House are unclear. House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters in late January that there was “some support” for a bill if it involved doctors and tight controls.

“We have polled our caucus,” he said then. “We still have a few members that need to respond to those polls. So what I would say is that there’s some support and we’ll see. I’d say that there’s a chance it may happen.”

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Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi joined the state politics team in July 2022. She covers health care, including mental health and Medicaid expansion; higher education; hurricane recovery efforts and lobbying.Luciana previously worked as a Roy W. Howard Fellow at Searchlight New Mexico, an investigative news organization.


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