After emotional debate, medical marijuana approved by NC Senate

State senators tentatively voted to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina. The bill's future in the House, however, remains unclear.

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Laura Leslie
, WRAL capitol bureau chief
RALEIGH, N.C. — After an emotional debate Thursday, state senators tentatively voted to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina.

Sponsor Sen. Bill Rabon's voice was rough with emotion as he presented Senate Bill 711 on the floor.

"This bill is going to, in my opinion, help a lot of people at the end of their life, at a time that they need some compassion, at a time when what few days and what little time they have left should be as comfortable and as easy as they can be," said Rabon, R-Brunswick. "And I really believe this is going to do that."

Rabon himself narrowly survived cancer 22 years ago. He later watched his best friend succumb to ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. He said cannabis could have helped his friend through his difficult final days.

"It is just very difficult for me to stand before people and tell them how important this is to help people you love," he said. "Very difficult, because that's what we're really doing."

The Senate is scheduled to take its required second vote on the measure on Monday. After that, it goes to the House, where it's likely to face more opposition. It's unclear whether the House will even hear the bill before ending session in the next few weeks.

Rabon’s bill would set up a medical marijuana supply system that would be tightly regulated by the state. Ten suppliers would be licensed to grow, process and sell the drug at a total of eighty dispensaries statewide. Patients with a short list of debilitating conditions, including cancer, ALS, and those in hospice care, could buy it with a prescription from their primary doctor, if that doctor has taken additional courses and received certification to prescribe the drug.

"This is going to help a lot of people that need our help," Rabon said. "It's going to help them in a legal way. It's not going to make them criminals is not going to make them ashamed or reluctant to seek care."

Patients with PTSD could also qualify to use medical marijuana. Throughout the legislative process, veterans have been among the most vocal proponents for it, some saying medical marijuana provides better symptom relief than drugs.

"From one veteran that has seen the devastation in some of my friends that are taking their lives because of PTSD," said Sen. Kirk deViere, D-Cumberland. "Thank you for offering another alternative. Thank you for listening to them. And thank you for not leaving them behind."

The 35-10 vote didn't follow party lines, which reflected recent public opinion polls.

A WRAL News online survey of registered voters in the state found strong bipartisan support for the legalization of medical marijuana. Seventy-two percent of respondents said marijuana for medical use should be legalized, including 64% of Republicans, 75% of Democrats and 78% of unaffiliated voters. The poll was conducted in April.

Sen. Jim Burgin opposed the legislation, calling it the new version of big tobacco.

"I appreciate the sponsors' desire to help those who are suffering with physical or mental health issues," said Burgin, R-Harnett. "But marijuana does not treat the ailment. It only masks the symptoms."

Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, also voted against the bill after trying unsuccessfully to amend it to allow more small hemp businesses to become suppliers, processors and vendors.

Mayfield said a quarter of all the hemp acreage in the country is in North Carolina, but none of the state's existing businesses would qualify to take part in the program, because the bill requires each of the ten licensees to function "from seed to sale"—that is, produce the drug, process it and sell it at its own dispensaries.

Mayfield said only "very large multi-state corporations" could qualify.

"Since we legalized the hemp industry in 2015, we now have 1,500 licensed hemp growers, 1,300 processors, and thousands of retailers," Mayfield said. "These farmers and small business owners literally plowed the ground in North Carolina to make it fertile for the legalization of marijuana when we got to that point."

"But none of these entities can get the licenses that are created in this bill," Mayfield said. "They're not vertically integrated because they are small businesses and small farmers. These are constituencies that this body normally goes to the mat for, repeatedly."

The amendment was defeated through a procedural motion by Senate leadership.


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