Medical marijuana legalization passes first NC Senate committee, with some new changes

North Carolina’s state Senate could vote to legalize medical marijuana as soon as next week, a top Republican leader said Tuesday.

Republican Sen. Bill Rabon’s comments came just moments after a key committee signed off on some changes to the bill, which he sponsored last year and again this year.

The bill passed the Senate last year with broad bipartisan support. But GOP leaders in the House were less enthusiastic and never allowed it to come up for a vote. Rabon, however, said he thinks opposition in the House may be waning. He noted that public polling shows widespread support for legalization, even among Republican voters.

“I think putting it out there as long as we did last year and letting the public see it” helped the bill’s chances, Rabon said, adding: “Individuals at the General Assembly saw the polling and how many people — 80% plus in some cases — were in favor of it. They decided that 80% of people can’t be wrong.”

This year’s bill is largely the same as last year’s.

The list of 20 or so medical ailments that doctors could potentially prescribe marijuana for remains the same — yes to cancer and PTSD, no to chronic pain and glaucoma — but some of the other details are different.

On Tuesday, senators passed a handful of amendments to the bill. A few were purely technical fixes dealing with legalese, Rabon said. Others were requested by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, the North Carolina Medical Board and, in one case, a Democratic lawmaker from Asheville.

The way the bill is written will put strict limits on not just how marijuana could be prescribed or marketed, but also how many companies will be allowed to jump into the market.

The state would only be allowed to license 10 companies to sell medical marijuana, and each of those would be limited to just eight stores. That means North Carolina and its 100 counties would have no more than 80 medical marijuana dispensaries, at least as the bill is currently written.

Chris Suttle, a pro-legalization activist, said he supports the bill in general but dislikes how it restricts the amount of stores and business competition. And for farmers, he added, the bill seems written in a way that will disadvantage locals in favor of large out-of-state companies.

Asheville Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Democrat, has also raised similar concerns in the past. She succeeded in getting Rabon’s approval Tuesday for one change to the bill. When companies apply to compete for the state’s limited number of licenses to sell marijuana, her amendment will tip the scales in favor of companies that promise to open multiple stores in more rural parts of the state — rather than just clustering in the cities.

Several speakers from Christian groups attended Tuesday’s meeting to speak out against the bill.

Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, compared medical marijuana supporters to people who advocated taking Ivermectin for COVID-19 rather than a vaccine. There’s no real proof it works, he said, no matter what people say about it.

“Using smoked marijuana as a means of treating serious maladies is like using Ivermectin to treat Covid,” Creech said. “There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. But the claims have not stood the test of scientific scrutiny.”

In the end, senators from both parties voted for the bill Tuesday. Some pointed specifically to the promise they believe medical marijuana has for treating PTSD in military veterans, sexual assault survivors and others.

“This is a good bill, and we’re doing it for the right reasons,” said Sen. Michael Lazzara, a Republican who represents the areas around the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in Onslow County.

Rabon said it’s possible the bill will have a few more changes, probably all minor, as it makes its way through committees in the coming days. He expects the Senate to vote on it quickly and send it to the House as soon as next week.

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