On Wednesday, a North Carolina Senate bill that would permit the use of medical marijuana for the first time in North Carolina cleared the second of four committee steps.
The bipartisan Senate Bill 711, titled “NC Compassionate Care Act,” is the latest in a 12-year attempt to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposess.
The bill still must clear — in this order — the Health Care and Rules and Operations committees before a potential Senate floor vote.
Political analysts say the Health Care committee may be the most challenging of the four steps.
The pathway through the state House could be equally daunting, if not more so, according to political analysts.
The primary discussion in Finance was on licensing fees and potential annual revenue projections. Bill sponsors indicated they and legislative staff continue to review those projections.
But the bill's odds are improved with Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, chairman of Rules and Operations committee, as one of its three primary sponsors, along with Sens. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, and Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.
It requires the medical marijuana system be self-sustaining from a revenue perspective following initial money to set up the system.
The funding would come mostly from license fees and a monthly fee equal to 10% of the gross revenue derived from the products sold at the medical cannabis centers.
Lee said the reason for not having revenue projections yet is that North Carolina's approach is different than that of other states with medical marijuana laws.
"There really are no projections on how many North Carolinians will be eligible, and there is no best-practice legislation to look at," Lee said.
"Once we have a determination on how many people actually have the conditions that are specified in the bill, then we can determine costs and revenue."
Bill sponsors and other senators supporting SB711 have said it represents what Sen. Wally Nickel, D-Wake, called “the most conservative and restrictive medical marijuana bill in the country.”
There are 36 states that permit some form of medical marijuana use.
“This bill is narrowly tailored to offer medical marijuana to those with legitimate medical needs,” Nickel said.
As a primary reason for legalization, the bill says “modern medical research has found that cannabis and cannabinoid compounds are effective at alleviating pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with several debilitating medical conditions.”
Advocates who urged the Finance committee to vote down the legislation expressed their main concerns that medicinal use could lead to recreational use.
The Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League said Wednesday that, if medical marijuana is approved, it should be taxed similarly to tobacco and alcohol, rather than as a prescription drug.
Creech said he feared a statewide black market potentially emerging from N.C. medical marijuana centers, as he said has occurred in Colorado and Oregon.
Rabon, a cancer survivor, has said SB711 would not serve as a gateway to recreational marijuana use.
“Recreational marijuana use is not something we want in our state,” Lee said, but added that the prohibition should not keep North Carolina from doing the right thing for people with chronic and debilitating conditions.
Lowe has said bill sponsors reviewed legislation in piecing together SB711.
“We realized that, for some states, it has worked out well, while for others it was just a recreational product,” Lowe said. “That’s not the goal with this particular bill on our state.”
Some advocates for permitting medical marijuana criticize SB711 for being too restrictive on who can use it, and for not putting enough emphasis on the mental health aspect of debilitating health conditions.
Those advocates said Wednesday that expanding the number of health conditions that could benefit from medical marijuana use would help secure the self-sustaining financial requirement and potentially create more jobs for the sector.
The bill previously was amended to reduce the number of medical cannabis centers in from eight to four, two of which would be located in one of the state’s 20 Tier 1 counties — likely Mecklenburg and in the Triangle.
SB711 is similar in language to some of the 12 previous Democratic-sponsored medical marijuana bills, which date back to the 2009-10 sessions.
None of those bills advanced out of the first committee step.
An Elon University poll released in February found that 73% of North Carolinians support the medical use of marijuana. That’s down from nearly 80% when the question was asked in 2017.
About 64% of Republicans surveyed said they supported the use of medical marijuana, along with 75% of Democrats.
In a separate but related question, 54% of North Carolina adults support the legalization of the drug for casual use, and only 34% oppose it.
Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, has said that “having the powerful Senate Rules committee chairman as a primary sponsor certainly gives the measure a better shot this time around.