RALEIGH, N.C. -- Marijuana legalization in North Carolina for medical purposes is advancing again within the state Senate, less than a year after a very similar measure setting a structure for its sale and consumption passed the chamber by a wide margin.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday for the legislation, which was refiled last month as the new two-year General Assembly session began. The measure cleared the panel on a voice vote after the passage of several amendments, one of which is designed to ensure sales access in rural areas.
While the new version is likely to clear the full Senate sometime next week, the future of medical marijuana in North Carolina will depend on its level of support in the House. That chamber declined to take up the Senate measure in 2022. Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, suggested recently that support for legalizing pot for the treatment of medical conditions is possible given the right restrictions in the measure.
Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who shepherded the previous and current measures, has pitched to colleagues the legalization of smoking or consuming cannabis as a way to give relief to people with pain or illnesses and from whom their doctors say they could benefit.
House interest "seems to be growing, and I'm very happy to hear that," said Rabon, a cancer survivor who as a chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is a top lieutenant to Senate leader Phil Berger.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Marijuana for recreational use would remain illegal. Any measure getting final legislative approval would go to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has expressed openness to the idea and to decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The measure says that lawful marijuana use could occur for over a dozen different debilitating medical conditions in which their doctor, trained on the topic, declares the health benefits of cannabis outweigh the risks.
Those conditions would include epilepsy, Crohn's disease, HIV/AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. People with a terminal illness or receiving hospice care also can qualify. A newly created advisory board could add to that list.
A proposed Medical Cannabis Production Commission would award licenses to 10 entities that would grow cannabis, process it and sell it.
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Each licensee could open eight medical cannabis centers across the state. They could sell marijuana or cannabis-infused products to patients or their caregivers, who would have to obtain registration cards from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The licensees would have to send 10% of their monthly revenues to the state. Registered patients would face fines for smoking pot in public or near a school or church.
Some social conservatives opposed the measure, which must run through two more Senate committees before it comes to the floor.
One opponent mentioned on Tuesday a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs declaration that "research to date does not support cannabis as an effective PTSD treatment." Meanwhile, veterans attending previous Senate committee hearings have said cannabis eases PTSD symptoms.
"Just because a medical condition causes emotional or physical suffering ... that's not a good reason to treat it without sufficient evidence with a psychoactive substance that has significant potential harms," said another speaker, the Rev. Mark Creech with the Christian Action League of North Carolina, while quoting a Louisiana physician.
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Other pro-cannabis advocates support the medical legalization bill but are concerned about whether 10 licenses are enough for a state of 10.7 million people. And they said the tight "seed-to-sale" licensing structure makes getting into the industry cost-prohibitive for local growers or small entrepreneurs.
"While legislatively it works out, financially it's very demanding," said Christian Adams of Raleigh, who is working with a cannabis legalization consultant and is interested in obtaining a future license. "For the average person I know, they don't have the resources. They don't have the connections to even make this possible for themselves."