When will medical marijuana be legalized in North Carolina?

Natasha Marcus

Natasha Marcus

Medical marijuana is another step closer to being legalized in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Senate recently advanced a bill that would legalize marijuana for medical use. Now the Compassionate Care Act heads to the House for a vote.

Lawmakers there could make any changes to the bill, but then the two chambers would need to agree on a final version of the bill to send to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature.

Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Senator Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat who represents North Carolina District 41, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

She spoke with The Charlotte Observer to break down what the new law would change and who would be qualified to get medical marijuana.

What is the purpose of the bill?

“It is a very regulated way for the state of North Carolina to join the majority of other states that allow citizens to access use of medical marijuana with a doctor’s approval to treat a list of very specific medical conditions.”

Who qualifies for medical marijuana? Would there be any restrictions?

“So there are a lot of restrictions. It is a very careful approach. The Republican drafter of this bill, Senator (Bill) Rabon, who has been working hard to get it through, is aware of the opposition in his party to any legalization of marijuana for any reason. So it is a very careful bill that is very specific about who will be able to access it. It’s actually criticized for being too regulated and too restricted. But there is a specific list of which debilitating medical conditions qualify. But you have to qualify under one of those specific medical conditions that have to be a doctor saying that you do.”

What would qualified patients need to do to access it?

“So they would have to see their doctor who would give them a specific I.D. card that would qualify them to be able to purchase medical marijuana at one of the state-authorized suppliers. You’re not going to have lots and lots of these stores. They’re not going to be popping up on every corner. You have to have a state license to be a supplier and there are only ten licenses statewide that are permitted and it requires quite a bit of upfront investment. A $50,000 non-refundable license fee, for example, in order to be one of these suppliers.”

Sen. Natasha Marcus, left, and Sen. Michael Lee listen as Chris Suttle speaks about medical marijuana during a Senate Judiciary hearing in Raleigh on June 30. In a near unanimous vote, medical marijuana cleared its first legislative hurdle during the committee hearing. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Will doctors require additional training to provide prescriptions?

“It requires a physician to complete a 10-hour continuing medical education course about prescribing medical cannabis before they can issue a written certification to a patient to qualify and then it also requires a three-hour supplemental course thereafter.”

What is the distribution going to look like? How long will that take?

“A lot of that is unknown. This bill is criticized for not having enough supplier licenses provided. Each supplier can have a certain number of additional locations and affiliations with growers. It’s a little unclear how it’ll play out. There is a provision in the act to expand the number of suppliers if necessary. But this is new in North Carolina and I think it’s really impossible for legislators to predict how that’s going to go on. There are some restrictions about what type of advertising. It has to be tasteful. It can’t be images of the marijuana plant in the advertising, or things like that. So there are restrictions in there about that as well.”

How would patients prove they’re legally allowed to use medicinal cannabis?

“Patients will apply for a qualified patient-caregiver ID card, for which there will be a fee. They have to qualify for that with their doctor with whom they have a bona fide physician-patient relationship.”

How likely is the House to pass the bill?

“I never predict when it comes to what the House will do. I do know that in the past, it’s been the House that has stopped the bill from going through and I have heard House Speaker Tim Moore is now on the record saying that there’s been enough change of members in his House Republican caucus, that there has been a change in attitude. That to me was an encouraging sign. They may want to further restrict in some way. I think the bill already has a lot of restrictions in it. It’s very careful. They may tweak it. The House likes to tweak what the Senate sends over. But I am hopeful that they’re hearing from their constituents like I am and so many of us are, that it is time for medical marijuana in North Carolina.”

If passed, when could medical marijuana be legalized?

“The bill itself says the act would be effective when it becomes law, but we don’t know when it would become law yet. You’ve got to wait for the House to pass it. If they make any changes it has to come back to the Senate and pass in the conference committee and then you’ve got to wait for the governor to sign it. So you can’t put a specific date on it. But presumably, it will pass in 2023, in this calendar year, and then it would immediately become law.”

Could out-of-state residents get medical marijuana if the bill passes?

“The bill does not require a qualified patient to be a North Carolina resident to qualify for medical cannabis use. A qualified patient is defined as an individual who has been diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating medical condition and has received a written certification. The qualified patient would then have to follow the application process with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, but the bill wouldn’t preclude an out-of-state resident from doing so.”

Is this the first step to legalizing marijuana for recreational use?

“Some people worry that it would be. Some of the opposition, I think, to medical marijuana is a fear that it is a slippery slope toward recreational use. This bill is, again, so regulated and so careful that I’m not worried this will lead to that. Some states have done that. First step medical marijuana then recreational use. But they’re not tied. There’s no reason why that has to happen and I think that there’s several people who support this bill who would not support recreational use of marijuana for our state.”

What else should we know about the bill?

“I just want to mention that there’s a lot of local, smaller farmers … a lot of Black farmers specifically, who have come to Raleigh to mention that they’re not going to be able to participate in this and benefit from this because of the way the bill is drafted. It’s favoring the larger corporations that can make those huge initial investments to meet the requirements of the bill. So they feel left out and cut out of this. We tried, as Democrats, to come up with how to address those concerns in the draft but we were basically shut down. So many of us who would’ve liked a slightly different bill are still supporting this bill because, given the conservative nature of the General Assembly, it is the only way that patients in North Carolina are ever going to get access to legalized medical marijuana.”

This story was originally published March 6, 2023, 10:00 AM.

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Chyna Blackmon is a service journalism reporter for The Charlotte Observer. A native of the Carolinas, she grew up in Columbia, SC, and graduated from Queens University of Charlotte. She’s also worked in local television news in Charlotte, NC, and Richmond, VA.

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