NC Black farmers say medical marijuana bill shuts out locals

On the cusp of potential passage of a medical marijuana bill by the North Carolina Senate, a handful of Black farmers traveled from Eastern North Carolina to speak with lawmakers and protest the lack of input from local growers.

The farmers criticized the bill’s language, which they say opens the door to corporate monopolization and shuts locals out.

“Black farmers and landowners in eastern parts of North Carolina and really across the state have a vested interest in being able to participate in the cannabis industry,” said Moe Matthews, founder and managing partner of Hemp Gen LLC, which sells hemp seeds, flower and processed CBD oils and is located in Williamston.

He said he had been working in hemp sales for five years. The current language in the bill “absolutely shuts out” local growers, he said, who want to “have some input at the table” and “be able to influence what the language would be.”

Senate Bill 3, the “Compassionate Care Act,” ran through multiple committees in a few days, and is expected to go to the Senate floor as soon as next week. If passed by the Senate and the House — which killed the bill last year — medical marijuana would become legal for people who have cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. Those do not include chronic pain, and the drug would not be allowed for recreational use.

State Sen. Graig Meyer, center, meets with a group of Black farmers including Moe Matthews, far left, Calvin Jones, and Charles Jones, right, at the North Carolina Legislative Building Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The farmers criticized the language of a proposed medical marijuana bill, which they say opens the door to corporate monopolization and shuts locals out. Travis Long

The bill requires applicants for a supplier license 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. It 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.

An 11-member board, separate from the advisory board, would approve, suspend or revoke licenses for suppliers of marijuana. This board would approve 10 licenses from a list. Each approved license holder would be able to operate a maximum of eight medical cannabis centers, with at least one in an economically distressed county. Following an amendment, priority would also be given to applicants placing a medical cannabis center in more than one Tier 1 county.

Limited licenses, limited entrance

The limited number of licenses was a big concern for the growers at the legislature Thursday.

“We don’t feel that we’ll be able to be able to attach to these 10 individuals or 10 corporations if we don’t get it done now,” Matthews said.

Marcus Bass, deputy director of the North Carolina Black Alliance, a nonprofit, said there is a small number of corporations that will benefit from the bill’s passage and that in conversations with lawmakers Thursday he was shocked about the “very narrow entrance for any individual.”

Lawmakers, Bass said, were “big on the fact that the large companies can produce the quality product within regulation standards,” which is “ignorant of the fact that our growers in North Carolina, particularly Black farmers, have been in co-ops trying to perfect those same aspects and are already producing a product that is ready to go on shelves.”

Last week, during committee hearings, 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.

Sen. Bill Rabon, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said this was “going to be a very expensive process for anyone to get into.” 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.

A group of Black farmers including Calvin Jones and Charles Jones, right, speak with state Rep. Kanika Brown Thursday, in her office at the North Carolina Legislative Building Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The farmers criticized the language of a proposed medical marijuana bill, which they say opens the door to corporate monopolization and shuts locals out. Travis Long

Sen. Michael Lee, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, 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.

Bass said lawmakers told them Thursday that they were three years late in entering the conversation.

“If the goose is already cooked, why are we dealing with legislation? Let’s just go ahead and let the corporations deal with it the way they want to,” Bass said. “Don’t muddy the waters with political engagement when there is no political discourse to be had.”

Still not a done deal

While the bill is speeding through the Senate, having passed the rules committee Thursday, it still has to clear the House, where it died last year.

On Thursday, House Speaker Tim Moore said that the House would look at the Senate’s medical marijuana bill and that it had “decent prospects of passage.”

Asked if there had been a shift in opinion in the House, Moore said, “there has been,” and that “last year when we didn’t take it up, it was overwhelmingly opposed by most of the caucus.”

This year, with many new House members, “attitudes have changed and I think some folks have had an opportunity, once they were back home and met with folks, to see that there’s some potentially legitimate uses for this,” such as the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, Moore said.

He said for a bill to pass there would need to be “reasonable controls.” and a balance to have enough distributors to prescribe and avoid a monopoly — but at the same time, “not just throwing the door wide open where you have these things literally on every street corner.”

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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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