The North Carolina Senate this week approved a bill to legalize marijuana, bringing the measure one step away from heading to the state House of Representatives for consideration. The bill, titled the North Carolina Compassionate Care Act (Senate Bill 3), passed handily with little debate in the state Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 36-10. The bipartisan bill was introduced on January 25 by Republican Senators Bill Rabon and Michael Lee and Democratic Senator Paul Lowe.
“The purpose of the bill is to allow for tightly regulated use of medical cannabis, only by those with debilitating illnesses,” Rabon said on the Senate floor before Tuesday’s vote.
“The recreational sale or use of marijuana remains, under this legislation, illegal,” he added.
If signed into law, the bill would legalize the medicinal use of cannabis for patients with one or more specified qualifying serious medical conditions such as cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. Unlike the more comprehensive medical marijuana programs in many other states, however, the bill does not legalize the use of medical marijuana by patients diagnosed with chronic pain.
Before the bill was approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the sponsors of the bill emphasized that the measure does not legalize recreational marijuana. Instead, the intent of the legislation “is to only make changes to existing state law that are necessary to protect patients and their doctors from criminal and civil penalties and would not intend to change current civil and criminal laws for the use of non-medical marijuana,” Rabon told reporters on February 21.
Under the bill, patients with a qualifying “debilitating medical condition” would be allowed to use medical marijuana. The bill permits the smoking and vaping of medical cannabis by patients whose doctors have recommended a specific form and dosage of medical marijuana. Physicians would be required to review a patient’s continued eligibility for the medical marijuana program annually. Smoking medical cannabis in public or near schools and churches would not be legal under the measure.
The bill requires patients and qualified caregivers to obtain a medical marijuana identification card from the state. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services would be responsible for creating “a secure, confidential, electronic database containing information about qualified patients, designated caregivers, and physicians,” according to the text of the measure. The bill also creates an 11-member advisory panel appointed by the governor and lawmakers to review proposals for new qualifying medical conditions.
Additionally, the legislation establishes a Medical Cannabis Production Commission to oversee medical cannabis producers and ensure a sufficient supply of medical marijuana is produced for the state’s registered patients. The legislation authorizes the licensing of up to 10 businesses to grow, process, and sell cannabis, and permits each producer to operate up to eight medical marijuana dispensaries. Under the bill, the state would levy a 10% tax on the monthly revenue of each medicinal cannabis producer. The bill also requires regulators to establish a tracking system to monitor the production, movement, and sale of cannabis products from cultivator to consumer.
“Those suppliers must meet strict requirements for how to locate and operate their facilities, how to grow their cannabis and how to package and sell their inventory,” Rabon said on the Senate floor. “They must track every product from seed to sale.”
Only one lawmaker, Republican Senator Jim Burgin, spoke against the measure on Tuesday, saying that “marijuana is not medicine” and has not been approved for medicinal use by the federal government.
“It’s bad for kids,” Burgin said. ”I think this bill sets up big government, and I think it can easily be changed to legalize marijuana” for recreational use, he added.
Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the 16 Republicans who voted for the measure, praised Rabon and the other sponsors of the bill for their work to gain consensus among their colleagues before the bill came up for a vote by the full Senate.
“The lack of debate on the floor really is a reflection on how much work Senator Rabon and the other sponsors have done over the past two years in just making people aware of what the bill does, answering questions, modifying the language,” Berger said.
Senate Bill 3 still faces one more vote in the North Carolina Senate before heading to the state House of Representatives for consideration. Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said the bill has some support in the House, according to a report from the Associated Press. If passed by both chambers of the legislature, the bill would head to the desk of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, who has indicated support for legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis by adults.
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