NC’s medical marijuana bill on the move again, ultimate fate unclear

RALEIGH, N.C. — The push to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina is back underway at the General Assembly, with a bill that failed to clear key legislative hurdles last year beginning that journey again.

The measure was discussed in the Senate Judiciary committee on Wednesday, but a vote on it was postponed till next Tuesday, Feb. 21. If it passes that committee, as expected, it will move to the Senate Finance committee for more discussion.

Senate Bill 3 is functionally the same measure state lawmakers debated last year. It would legalize marijuana prescriptions for about a dozen named conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease and Parkinson’s, as well as any terminal illness. It also sets up a “Compassionate Use Advisory Board” that can add more conditions in the future.

At Wednesday’s hearing, cannabis activist Chris Suttle was one of several speakers who urged lawmakers to expand the list to cover other issues, like reducing opioid use for chronic pain.

“Let your physician decide whether you need to continue to keep taking opioids for something,” Suttle said. “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.”

Another speaker, Joe Wescott, a Triangle resident who spoke in favor of the bill, told the panel he had lost both parents to Alzheimer’s. He called attention to recent research showing medical marijuana could help patients with dementia.

“I looked into the eyes of my mother who was in anguish and confusion there in the final weeks of that disease,” Wescott said with emotion. “If this product can be helpful to North Carolinians who are battling that illness, then I think we need to carefully consider what we will be providing.”

The bill would allow 10 companies to run up to eight medical cannabis centers each around the state. The limited number, and the strict requirements applicants would face, concern some of the state’s existing hemp businesses, which fear they’ll be shut out of a new industry in favor of large, out-of-state companies.

“From farmers to retailers that have really been banking on adding cannabis to their business models once legalized – it cuts all of them out entirely,” Nicolette Baglio, chief executive of Citizen Bloom Botanics, told WRAL News. “It was written by out-of-state, large billion-dollar cannabis corporations, and it was intended to benefit them the most.”

Last year’s medical marijuana bill passed the state Senate with bipartisan support, but it never got a hearing in the House, a sign leadership did not want it to pass.

This year’s bill is expected to pass the Senate again — lead Republican sponsor Sen. Bill Rabon chairs one of the chamber’s most powerful committees — but its chances in the House are difficult to predict. About 25% of the chamber’s membership turned over in the November elections, including several of the chamber’s staunchest opponents of legalization.

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