RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A bill legalizing medical marijuana cleared a Senate committee Tuesday as lawmakers approved some changes they said were aimed at increasing access across the state if the measure is ultimately approved.
The Compassionate Care Act is similar to a bill the Senate passed last year but that the House never considered.
“Timing is everything in politics. And, I’m not sure that North Carolina was quite ready to do it until some other states did it,” said State Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), a cancer survivor and one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “We saw some states that didn’t do it so well. We saw some states that did it well. We tried to take from the ones that did it well and profit from their good moves.”
Supporters of legalization have raised concerns that people in rural communities could struggle to get access, having to travel significant distances if medical cannabis centers are concentrated in larger communities.
Under the bill, the state’s Medical Cannabis Production Commission would have the authority to grant up to 10 licenses to suppliers who would then be allowed to set up a maximum of eight medical cannabis centers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amendment to the bill Tuesday that calls on the commission to give priority to suppliers who commit to setting up those centers in an equitable way throughout the state and to those who commit to establishing a center in more than one Tier 1 county. The North Carolina Department of Commerce says the state’s 40 most economically distressed counties are considered Tier 1 counties.
“I think it’s a great idea because that is the intent: for everyone to have access to this and for everyone to have access to healthcare for that reason,” said Rabon.
Lawmakers also approved a provision that would make it easier for law enforcement to verify with the NC Dept. of Health and Human Services whether someone is a qualified patient in the medical cannabis registry database. People would have to carry a registry identification card with them if they’re carrying cannabis and show that to law enforcement when asked.
Some advocates for legalization have raised concerns that the tight controls that would be in place would make it difficult for many small business owners and entrepreneurs to get into the industry.
Christian Adams, of Raleigh, said he views legalization as a potential opportunity. But, he says many people would struggle to afford the initial fees, which are $50,000 plus $5,000 for each production facility or medical cannabis center.
“Financially, it’s very demanding. And, honestly, I just don’t know if I could afford it,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing it’s being tightly controlled. I get legislatively keeping control over it, making sure everything is done correctly. But, it still shuts out small entrepreneurs.”
When asked about that issue, Rabon said, “It’s difficult to do because of the constraints and because of probably the expense of getting into the business in this controlled environment.”
If the bill becomes law, North Carolina would become the 38th state to legalize medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Jere Royall, of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, urged lawmakers to vote against it.
He quoted from a post on the website for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regarding cannabis use for post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans.
“However, research to date does not support cannabis as an effective PTSD treatment, and some studies suggest cannabis can be harmful, particularly when used for long periods of time. Given these concerns, cannabis is not recommended for the treatment of PTSD,” it reads.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, also spoke against the bill, saying more scientific research is needed.
“It’s like using ivermectin to treat COVID. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence but the claims have not stood the test of scientific scrutiny,” he said.
Two more Senate committees still have to consider the bill, but Rabon said he anticipates a vote on the Senate floor early next week. While the House did not take up the issue last year, Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has indicated there is more support to consider it this year.