Medical marijuana bill advances in NC Senate after significant changes

The latest attempt at a bipartisan state Senate medical marijuana bill moved forward Tuesday after several significant changes were made to the legislation.

Senate Bill 3, titled “NC Compassionate Care Act,” has Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, as one of three primary sponsors, along with Republican Sens. Bill Rabon of Brunswick County and Michael Lee of New Hanover County.

The Senate Judiciary committee approved four amendments before recommending the bill to the Finance committee.

Perhaps the foremost change was providing a qualified exemption for suppliers of medical marijuana products from potential criminal prosecution.

Bill sponsors said the amendment assures that suppliers would not be subject to arrest for possessing, producing, delivering or transporting cannabis, or aiding and abetting in those actions, if their conduct fits within the proposed law’s parameters.

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Eligible cardholders would be required to show their card to law enforcement upon request.

The exemption goes away if the cannabis is delivered to anyone who is not a patient eligible to use medical marijuana, or their caregiver.

A similar exemption was added for a planned registry that would identify individuals considered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as cardholders eligible to possess medical marijuana products.

Another amendment would require the 10 approved licensees of medical marijuana products to operate at least one of up to eight medical cannabis centers in a Tier 1 county — considered as one of the 40 most economic-distressed counties in the state.

For 2023, those counties are Randolph, Rockingham, Surry and Wilkes counties in the Triad and Northwest N.C.

The bill would allow for up to 20 recommended applicants to fill the 10 licensees, with suppliers being given priority if they commit to placing a medical cannabis center into more than one Tier 1 county.

The amendment also would encourage “preventing an overconcentration of medical cannabis centers in any one area.”

A third amendment would require medical cannabis to be transported in a closed container and placed in a passenger compartment in a vehicle, or while the individual is on a public street or highway.

That amendment also provides a misdemeanor penalty for fraudulent use of identification to enter a medical cannabis center or to obtain medical cannabis.

Sponsors of a bipartisan state Senate medical marijuana bill expressed hope Wednesday that the latest version will gain enough support to finally clear the legislature after a 13-year journey.

Lowe said the re-filed version of SB3 is essentially the same at Senate Bill 711, which passed the Senate by a 37-6 vote in June.

However, House Republican leadership shelved SB711 for the session.

The legislation “is designed to help people who often can’t help themselves,” Rabon said.

Lowe said his support comes from his belief that the use of medical marijuana will help many North Carolinians with their chronic and debilitating health issues.

“Our citizens should be able to take part in medicine that will help them,” compared with using opioids as painkillers, he said.

Potential opposition from House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and House majority leader John Bell IV, R-Johnston, could derail the vote during the current session, said John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political science professor and national expert on state legislatures.

“At this point, we have to rely on the comments of (Moore and Bell), who have cast significant doubt on plans to consider medical marijuana legalization,” Dinan said.

12-year journey

SB3 is the latest in numerous attempts over the past 12 years to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The bill has been on an arduous path since being introduced during the 2021 session.

It requires the medical marijuana system to pay for itself following initial money to set up the system.

The funding would come mostly from license fees and a monthly fee equal to 10% of the gross revenue derived from the products sold at medical cannabis centers.

Opponents have expressed concern that the legislation would serve as a gateway to legalized marijuana in North Carolina by 2024; that the licensing fee for vendors is too low; that a license should not be sold; and that the potential profit levels need to be lowered.

Rabon called SB711 “the tightest, best-written bill, seeing what other states did wrong and trying to omit those pitfalls.”

“We had to jump through a lot of hoops to do this, and we jumped through them the right way,” Rabon said. “We have been calculating, methodical, written and rewritten, taken things out, taken advice to come up with a final product that every person in the legislature can be proud of.”

That included physicians being barred from advertising that they offer medical marijuana. It also addressed potential conflicts of interest between physicians, independent testing laboratories and suppliers.

“It will be, from start to finish, traceable and trackable to every single supplier, grower, manufacturer …,” Rabon said.

Jordan Monaghan, press secretary for Gov. Roy Cooper, said “studies have shown medical marijuana can offer many benefits to some who suffer from chronic conditions, particularly veterans.”

“The governor is encouraged that North Carolina might join the 36 other states that have authorized it for use.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com

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@rcraverWSJ

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