RALEIGH, N.C. -- The North Carolina Senate voted on Tuesday to legalize marijuana use for medical purposes, giving strong bipartisan support for the second year in a row to an idea that its supporters say would give relief to those with debilitating or life-ending illnesses.
After little debate, the chamber voted 36-10 to give initial support to legislation that would create a structure by which physicians could essentially prescribe marijuana to their patients if they believe the health benefits outweigh the risks. Patients with over a dozen conditions could qualify - including epilepsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder - as well as those with terminal illnesses or who are receiving hospice care.
The proposal is almost identical to a bill the Senate passed last June by a similar margin, which then stalled in the House. This year, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore has said there's some support for the idea in his chamber. The measure needs one more Senate vote on Wednesday before it moves to the House.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who would be asked to sign any final bill into law, already has expressed interest in authorizing medical pot and in decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Legalizing marijuana for medical use has been discussed by lawmakers for several years. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Under North Carolina's bill, a new state commission would award licenses to 10 entities that would grow cannabis, process it and sell it - each with up to eight sales centers. The licensees would have to send 10% of their monthly revenues to the state.
"Those suppliers must meet strict requirements for how to locate and operate their facilities, how to grow their cannabis and how to package and sell their inventory," Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who has championed medical marijuana legislation, said on the Senate floor. "They must track every product from seed to sale."
Qualified patients, age 21 or older, and their caregivers would have to receive registration cards from the state to buy cannabis at a center. Registered patients would face fines for smoking pot in public or near a school or church. Marijuana for recreational use would remain illegal under the measure.
Sen. Jim Burgin, a Harnett County Republican, spoke against the measure Tuesday, saying that "marijuana is not medicine" and hasn't been approved for use by regulators. At committee meetings, representatives of conservative Christian groups have consistently opposed the legislation.
"It's bad for kids," Burgin said. "I think this bill sets up big government, and I think it can easily be changed to legalize marijuana" more broadly, he added.
Still, 16 of the 26 Republicans present Tuesday joined all 20 Democrats in supporting the measure. Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the Republicans who voted for the measure, credited Rabon - a cancer survivor - and other bill sponsors for persuading colleagues to accept legalization arguments.
Last week, more amendments were made to the bill, including one designed to ensure sales access in rural areas.
"The lack of debate on the floor really is a reflection on how much work Sen. Rabon and the other sponsors have done over the past two years in just making people aware of what the bill does, answering questions, modifying the language," Berger said.
Some people have complained about the obstacles that local growers or entrepreneurs could face under the proposed structure. While license winners must have lived in the state for at least two years and be the expected majority owner of their operation, the process isn't cheap. An upfront initial license fee is $50,000, plus $5,000 per production facility and sales center.