Medical marijuana legalization keeps inching closer to reality in North Carolina, as it moves from committee to committee where legislators tweak the bill, then pass it on to the next.
The bill seems to have broad bipartisan support so far. Its GOP sponsors have repeatedly told their fellow Republicans that they believe North Carolina should join most of the rest of the country in legalizing medical marijuana — but that they want the rules here to be the strictest anywhere in the nation.
Democrats overwhelmingly support the bill, Senate Bill 711, with many saying it’s too strict but better than nothing. Meanwhile Republicans, who control the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, have mostly been supportive or silent. Only a small number have opposed the bill, at least in public.
And while the original version of the bill was lauded by its GOP backers for its strict rules, over the past few months it has gotten even stricter. That continued Tuesday afternoon as the Senate advanced yet another new version of the bill. It passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, with no one voting against it.
Some of the changes they approved Tuesday include:
▪ Explicitly banning smoking legal marijuana in public, or while driving, or within 1,000 feet of places like schools and churches (unless inside a private residence).
▪ Tweaking the list of acceptable medical ailments that marijuana could be prescribed for, to make it more narrow. They removed a catchall provision that might have given doctors more latitude to prescribe it for things not explicitly listed. They replaced it with a more specific catchall, for anyone with a terminal condition and a prognosis of less than six months to live.
▪ Adding a new section spelling out various requirements that doctors will have to pass to be allowed to prescribe medical marijuana.
More changes to come?
The bill next goes to the Senate’s health care committee, then will stop at a final committee, called rules and operations, before it goes up for a full vote. Then it would have to repeat the process in the House of Representatives. That means there is still plenty of time for the bill to change, in ways big or small.
On Tuesday, several politicians and members of the public offered suggestions for future tweaks to make along the way.
A Democrat on the judiciary committee, Sen. Natasha Marcus of Charlotte, said she still thinks they should add language saying marijuana can be prescribed for chronic pain. Republicans have previously shot that idea down, saying they think it could be abused by people who are faking.
But other states have allowed medical marijuana to replace opioids in prescriptions for issues like chronic pain, and Marcus said that broadening the rules here could lead to fewer opioid overdose deaths.
“This bill would be much better if it would acknowledge that we have that problem here in North Carolina as well,” she said.
Janis Ramquist of NC NORML, the pro-legalization group, told lawmakers Tuesday that she appreciates some of the stricter rules, like requiring packaging to be child-proof. She said she would also support further regulations requiring packaging to say whether the cannabis it contains is natural or synthetic, and whether it was grown using pesticides. And she urged them to delete a section that would ban marijuana packaging from saying what strain of cannabis it contains.
Different strains of marijuana like Indica and Sativa have different effects, she said, and thus are used by patients for different purposes. She questioned why future patients in North Carolina shouldn’t be told that or other information like whether what they’re buying is natural or synthetic.
“We have gotten feedback from other states that the labeling is lax and could affect patient safety,” Ramquist said.
Pat Oglesby, a former business and law professor at UNC who has worked on medical marijuana issues in other states, told lawmakers Tuesday that they should reconsider the part of the bill related to who can get a license to grow medical marijuana in North Carolina.
The current version would require a grower to previously have had “at least five years of experience in cultivation, production, extraction, product development, quality control, and inventory management of medical cannabis in a state-licensed medical or adult use cannabis operation.”
Oglesby said this isn’t about something like building a nuclear power plant; it’s about growing a plant, and North Carolinians can do that. But there’s probably almost no one in North Carolina who would technically qualify under those rules, Oglesby said. So the growing money might all go out of state instead of to local farmers, he said.
“I’m not sure what problem it’s trying to solve,” he said.
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