The passage of the Medical Marijuana Amendment 66 earlier this month is a victory for supporters of medical marijuana and for those of us interested in how public policy impacts our medical choices. The bill came out of the Illinois General Assembly, where it received strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. A lot of the credit for the bill being passed goes to a coalition of patients, medical professionals, and local faith leaders who, in their own words, “helped move this thing from idea to implementation.”

After voting on the medical marijuana bills, the House of Representatives passed SB 50 and SB 51 late last night, which means that the bills are now headed to the Senate. Both bills have garnered a lot of attention from the public in recent months, and now that they have both cleared the state house, they should be able to pass in the senate as well.

In a highly unusual move, medical marijuana advocates celebrated another victory over their longstanding rivals Wednesday night, the day after the legislature sent the bill to Gov. Mary Fallin, who will have up to 30 days to veto or sign the bill.

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On Wednesday, proposed legislation to legalize medicinal cannabis in North Carolina passed its second committee vote in the N.C. Senate. Before going to the Senate floor for a vote, the measure must pass through two more Senate committees. 

This legislative session, the N.C. Compassionate Care Act has been pushed ahead by bipartisan support, including the endorsement of Rules and Operations Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick. It’s an extraordinary effort for cannabis reform, albeit one with tight limits, in a state where marijuana legislation of all kinds have been repeatedly shot down. 

Senators Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth) complete the bill’s main sponsors. Senate Majority Leader Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, and three Democrats from around the state are also supporting the bill. 

The measure passed the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, with an amendment requiring that the cannabis infrastructure established by the law be “self-sustaining.” A hearing in Health Care comes next, followed by Rabon’s Rules and Operations, and finally a Senate floor vote before heading to the House.

Lee and Rabon have vouched for the medicinal potential of cannabis to enhance the quality of life for people with “debilitating medical illnesses” in the two committee hearings conducted thus far on the bill. If passed into law in its current form, the bill would allow physicians to prescribe cannabis to patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, or HIV/AIDS. (A complete list of incapacitating medical problems may be found at the conclusion of this page.) 

Furthermore, a number of military veterans have lobbied legislators to support the bill, noting the harmful consequences of the pharmacological “combat cocktail” given to certain veterans upon their return from conflict zones. 

Rob Rens, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and New Hanover County resident, stated, “Our stance on it has always been that we’re cognizant of the veteran suicide problem.”  

“We know what it is, and we know that opiates, uppers, and downers — what we refer to as the fight cocktail — aren’t having the desired impact, so we need to look for alternatives.”

“Subject to proof that an applicant suffered one or more traumatic events,” post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the severe medical conditions that may justify a cannabis prescription. “However, details of the trauma are not required.” 

On Wednesday, Rens said he attended approximately 20 meetings in Raleigh. His primary audience has been Republicans, who are concerned that adopting the Compassionate Care Act would set in motion a slippery slope that could eventually lead to recreational cannabis legalization. Rabon and Lee have said unequivocally that the law is exclusively for medical purposes. 

According to UNC School of Government associate professor Phil Dixon, “I view this as a limited bill that makes the modest acknowledgement that the drug has medicinal benefit for specific conditions.” 

Dixon focuses on cannabis from the perspective of criminal law. North Carolina has a complicated legal patchwork in this area, he added, since marijuana possession punishments differ based on where you are. 

“Several counties have stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana possession cases altogether,” Dixon added. “They’re still being prosecuted vigorously in other areas. That’s a shambles, and it’s a long-term problem that has to be addressed.” 

Rabon and Lee have argued in committee hearings that their measure is the most tightly regulated of its kind, more so than the bills passed in the 36 states that have previously approved medical cannabis legislation. Cannabis entrepreneurs would be responsible for overseeing a “seed-to-sale” business model, including the ownership of production facilities and shops. 

The measure would provide licenses to ten cannabis businesses. Each of those companies would be allowed a maximum of four shops, bringing the total number of medicinal cannabis dispensaries in the state to 40. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services will charge suppliers a $50,000 licensing cost and a $10,000 yearly renewal fee. In addition, NCDHHS receives a ten percent share of all total proceeds.    

Following the successful Finance hearing, the bill’s sponsors and supporters are now looking forward to the next Health Care hearing. 

“I think many of the 20-odd meetings we have planned for [Wednesday] will involve senators on the Health Care committee, and so that is a major part of where we’re going to concentrate our time and attention, to address any issues the committee members have there,” Rens, a USMC veteran, said. 

According to Rens, who views this bill as a means for North Carolina to become the most welcoming state for veterans, the advantages of cannabis have long been discussed in veteran circles. 

“We’ve been talking about it for years in military circles. I know individuals who have been taking it for years and years and years so that they wouldn’t have to take the opiates, uppers and lowers, and all the other medications that the VA prescribes because they don’t work,” he added. 

“It’s been a well guarded secret in our neighborhood, but I suppose the cat’s out of the bag now.” 

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