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Medical marijuana advances to NC House after historic vote in Senate

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On Monday, the state Senate passed a historic bill that would allow patients to receive medical marijuana through a trained physician for medical conditions such as cancer, PTSD, epilepsy and more.

The bill would also remove the state-level criminal penalties for medical use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana. The measure would not change civil or criminal laws governing marijuana for nonmedical use. 

Filed last year by the Senate as the “North Carolina Compassionate Care Act,” Senate Bill 711 passed its final required reading with a 36-7 vote. Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) spoke about the benefits of medical marijuana and its necessity during the second reading last Thursday, which passed after having a floor debate.

“It is our duty as lawmakers to pass legislation that helps people who need our help,” said Rabon, a primary sponsor of the bill and a cancer survivor who has worked on the legislation for five years. “It is not going to make them ashamed or reluctant to seek help if it is recommended to them by their physician.”

Another primary sponsor of the bill, Sen. Micheal V. Lee (R-New Hanover), also acknowledged that patients might need treatment that only marijuana can provide. “The patient gets to pray that this works because a lot of times nothing else does,” Lee said.

Though the bill has bipartisan support, opponents such as Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett) remains unconvinced. “Marijuana does not treat the ailment; it only masks the symptoms,” Burgin said.

Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) requested to amend the bill for in-state growers and retailers to participate in the medical marijuana trade. “This is a bill that the public clearly wants, but it is not quite there yet,” said Mayfield who ultimately voted against it.

The bill outlines limited and rigorous requirements – for individuals, physicians and suppliers – which the Department of Health and Human Services would enforce. The physician would also have to note whether benefits of smoking or consuming marijuana outweigh the risks for the patient. 

According to the bill, requirements for patients would include having a “debilitating medical condition.” These include cancer, PTSD, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, ALS, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia and other health conditions.

Patients would need to have shown diagnosis for a condition and a written certification from their physician. Afterward, they apply to DHHS to receive a registry identification card for consuming medical marijuana.  The card would go to a designated caregiver of the qualified patient. The caregiver – who needs to be at least age 21 – would assist the patient with the medical use of marijuana. Patients can have two designated caregivers, and caregivers can serve two qualified patients.

Both the qualified patient and the designated caregiver would be required to carry their registry indentation card when possessing medical marijuana or marijuana-infused products.

Duke University medical professor David Casarett, a supporter of medical marijuana, said that the drug is not for everybody or every condition. “I think we go into this with the honest assessment that it’s not a wonder drug, it’s not a panacea, it’s not a cure-all and it has some risks,” Casarett told WUNC. “As long as we go into it with eyes wide open and an honest assessment of risks and potential benefits, I think it is the right time.”

The bill will now go to the House. However, it is uncertain whether that chamber will pass the measure or wait until the next legislative session. In that case, the bill’s chances of becoming law would be delayed until possibly next year. 

Currently, North Carolina allows the use of industrial hemp-based products that contain 0.3 percent THC – the chemical that makes someone high.

If the bill becomes law, citizens would be able to consume a higher amount of THC, like in regular marijuana.

As of May 27, 37 states and the District of Columbia have removed state-level criminal penalties for medical marijuana, including Virginia, Alabama and New York. 

James Burrell is a summer journalism fellow with NC Policy Watch, sponsored by the States Newsroom. He graduated from NC Central University, where he co-edited the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.

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Medical marijuana advances to NC House after historic vote in Senate