Republican lawmakers have taken the first step toward legalizing medical marijuana in North Carolina, with an hour-plus hearing Wednesday that allowed politicians, health professionals, veterans and Christian activists all to weigh in.
Most other states in the country have already legalized medical marijuana, but the federal government still considers it illegal, and the idea is far from a done deal in North Carolina. There are still many potential stumbling blocks along the way, which could end up frustrating supporters and delighting opponents.
But unlike past attempts at marijuana reform, this one has a big-name sponsor: Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who is one of the most influential lawmakers in the state. He said he has tried to push medical marijuana behind the scenes before but decided it was finally time to put his name on it publicly.
“This is something I started 11 years ago, said that I would do,” Rabon told his fellow lawmakers Wednesday. “I may fall flat on my face but I’m going to see it through. I owe it to my fellow man. And I think you do, too.”
Public polling shows the majority of North Carolina Republicans support medical marijuana, but not recreational marijuana, while the majority of Democrats support both.
Rabon said the bill contains the strictest medical marijuana rules anywhere in the country. He said those include advertising restrictions and additional requirements for doctors, plus limitations on what types of medical conditions would qualify for a marijuana prescription — like cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, but not chronic pain or migraines like other states allow.
“To some people it is a contentious issue and to some people it is not,” Rabon said. “I happen to be one that is not. I’m a cancer survivor. I know how rough it is to go through chemo. I know how bad it is to wake up every day and think that it may be your last day on Earth.”
On Wednesday his Democratic colleagues said they were all in. And while no Republicans explicitly said they opposed it, some where more hesitant in their comments than others.
“Some of us have a bridge we need to cross to get comfortable with this,” Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican. “... For me personally, I’m really trying to keep an open mind.”
Arguments for medical marijuana
Half a dozen veterans came to speak in favor of medical marijuana, telling lawmakers about their or their friends’ struggles with PTSD. All of them said the complicated cocktail of drugs they get prescribed for PTSD can have bad complications or in some cases just doesn’t work — but that they’ve found marijuana is a better treatment.
“I have more deceased contacts in my phone due to suicide, than I have lost men in combat, over the last 20 years,” said Chayse Roth, a retired special forces veteran from Wilmington who joined the Marine Corps in 2001. “That’s unacceptable.”
Joshua Biddix, another Marine Corps veteran and former Asheville police officer, said he was prescribed 23 different legal drugs for his PTSD before eventually turning to marijuana, and found it helped him far better.
“I have personally looked down the barrel of my own service weapon, during one of the worst seasons of my life, and almost became one of the 22 veterans a day who commit suicide daily in our country,” Biddix said.
He told the lawmakers running Wednesday’s committee that they might be surprised to hear how many other veterans and cops are also secretly self-medicating.
“I can provide numerous names, ranks and titles of some of the most honorable men that you would know, with my same background, who would report the same to you behind closed doors,” Biddix said, calling them “honorable men who are criminals because we do not have medical marijuana legalized.”
Also in support of the bill, Senate Bill 711, was Dr. Julie Manly, a physician who said an average of six people die every day from drug overdoses in North Carolina, nearly all of them from opioid overdoses. States that have legalized medical marijuana have seen large reductions in opioid overdoses, she said, since doctors like her stop prescribing as many painkillers.
Arguments against medical marijuana
Opposing the bill Wednesday were two conservative Christian activists. They said they think medical marijuana will eventually lead to fully legal marijuana, and that they also doubt claims about its medical benefits.
“I can only pray that you will see through the haze,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, who leads the pro-temperance Christian Action League.
Jere Royall, the general counsel for the North Carolina Family Policy Council, said the Food and Drug Administration has approved some cannabidiol, or CBD, products but has not approved medical marijuana. He cautioned that supporters are overlooking the potential societal ills of more people using marijuana.
“It has high potential for abuse,” Royall said, later adding: “It causes a myriad of negative physical, psychological and social effects.”
Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville told Rabon he was trying to keep an open mind but that, “I do have a number of concerns, morally and otherwise.”
Republican supporters, however, said they have spoken at length with opponents and tried to work some of their concerns into the bill.
For example, Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Charlotte asked why chronic pain wouldn’t be an acceptable condition for someone to be prescribed marijuana. Sen. Michael Lee, a Wilmington Republican who co-sponsored the bill with Rabon, said they decided to exclude it because of a conversation Lee had with a man who worried that his son’s drug problems started when he got a maybe-bogus prescription for claiming to have chronic pain.
Lee said he agreed they didn’t want to allow that in North Carolina.
“Chronic pain means different things to different people,” he said.
Democrats also asked for other provisions, like decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana even for non-medical use. Unlike legalization, decriminalization wouldn’t allow pot dispensaries to open up but would allow people caught with weed to just be given a ticket, instead of criminal charges.
Rabon shot that down. They are trying, he said, to walk a middle ground by putting forward a bill that does legalize medical marijuana but in a very narrow way that intentionally does not go as far as any other state has.
“In the 36 or 37 states that now have medical cannabis, this would be the tightest,” Rabon said.
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