Top NC Republican legislator will push for medical marijuana again this year

A top Republican lawmaker is yet again pushing to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina.

The new legislative session began Wednesday morning, and the very first bill filed in the N.C. Senate was Sen. Bill Rabon’s “Compassionate Care Act”. It would allow medical — but not recreational — marijuana use statewide.

The proposal passed the Senate last summer with bipartisan support, but was never allowed a vote in the House.

It has a powerful sponsor in Rabon, who is one of the most influential people in state politics, as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. A veterinarian from coastal Brunswick County, Rabon is also a cancer survivor.

That experience led him to advocate for allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia and PTSD, among a handful of other ailments. He and other supporters say there is reason to believe marijuana, which is not addictive, could replace addictive-yet-legal opioids for some patients.

North Carolina is one of an increasingly small number of states that still fully outlaws marijuana. Most states have legalized medical marijuana, and a growing number have made the plant fully legal, even for purely recreational use.

Wednesday’s bill, Senate Bill 3, is long and filled with highly technical details on medical and financial regulations. But the list of approved medical ailments is identical to last year’s bill, and on first glance other parts of the bill also appear similar if not identical to the final version of last year’s bill, which went through a number of revisions before ultimately passing the Senate.

The bill’s two other main sponsors are also the same as last year: Winston-Salem Democratic Sen. Paul Lowe and Wilmington Republican Sen. Michael Lee.

Last year, some Democrats also proposed other marijuana bills that would have gone even further — including by fully legalizing it, or at least decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, so it would be treated more like a traffic ticket than a crime. But those bills went nowhere, even as the medical legalization proposal did move forward.

The trio of sponsors pitched their bill to Republican skeptics by saying that if North Carolina does legalize medical marijuana using their proposal, the rules would be the strictest of any state in the nation — with a relatively small list of medical ailments, as well as stringent rules governing marketing and other parts of the cannabis industry.

“This Article is intended to make only those changes to existing North Carolina laws that are necessary to protect patients and their doctors from criminal and civil penalties and is not intended to change current civil and criminal laws governing the use of cannabis for nonmedical purposes,” the bill’s introductory language states.

Democrats pushed unsuccessfully last year to add issues like chronic pain to the list of acceptable uses. But Rabon wouldn’t allow it, saying that could open too big of a loophole for people to fake an injury and exploit the system.

A big concern of some influential Christian lobbying groups that strongly opposed the bill last year is that legalizing medical marijuana might be a gateway to full recreational legalization down the road.

Public polling shows the vast majority of North Carolina residents support legalizing medical marijuana, including a majority of Republicans. A majority of the state also supports fully legal pot, even for recreational use, although support for that is smaller and doesn’t include a majority of Republican voters, The News & Observer has reported.

During the 2022 midterms, when every single legislative seat was up for election, The N&O asked legislative candidates for their opinions on a variety of topics. The responses showed Democratic candidates were nearly unanimous in support of medical marijuana, and fewer than one-in-five Republican candidates said they absolutely opposed it — although a large percentage of Republicans said they were undecided.

When the bill passed the Senate last year, it received only seven “no” votes in the 50-person Senate. However, another seven senators also skipped the vote altogether, including three who were running for Congress at the time — Chuck Edwards, Jeff Jackson and Don Davis.