N.C. Senate approves medical marijuana, but questions remain on labeling, limited licenses
By Donna King
In a vote Monday evening, the N.C. Senate gave final approval to legalize use of medical marijuana in North Carolina. The Compassionate Care Act (SB 711) lays out a system with a limited number of licensed producers, distributors who must be associated with those producers, and two boards to regulate the new arena made up of representatives from the law enforcement sector and the N.C. Department of Agriculture, plus cannabis industry experts, doctors, and pharmacists, all appointed by N.C. lawmakers and the governor.
Led by Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, the measure puts N.C. among 36 states where terminally ill people, or those with specific medical conditions, can have 1.5 ounces of marijuana for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription for a 30-day supply.
“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,” Rabon said, urging his colleague to vote in favor of the bill.
The vote was 35-10. Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said earlier this week that he intended to put the bill to a vote. However, the House may not take it up.
The original bill allows for the new Medical Cannabis Production Commission to issue 10 licenses for suppliers with four dispensaries each. At least one dispensary for each supplier must be in a low-income county. All sellers must be associated with one of the 10 licensees. An amendment from Rabon expands the number of potential dispensaries to eight per grower and bans commission members from having a financial interest in a licensed producer or seller.
“This is exciting, it’s a good step, but we are a farming state,” said Harrison Tulloss, a Wilson-based hemp producer. “I would like to see a way to have it benefit more farmers, more communities, across North Carolina. Right now it seems like the big publicly-traded companies are at the table. As long as we have the specs and the standard operating procedures, a consortium of small growers across the state could do this as well as anyone. It would help more of our rural communities find a new market.”
The Commission’s responsibility include establishing who gets the ten licenses and what those requirements will be. This is a primary topic of discussion in the industry right now.
“I don’t think this shuts anyone out. Anyone can apply for a license, and the Commission members bring their expertise,” said Mike Hager, a former state representative and lobbyist for Merida, a New York-based cannabis investment company. “This is slated toward rural areas, and it gives these farmers some options. It is another crop they can sell.”
There is also concern that nicknames for the different breeds of cannabis are not allowed on labels, because different breeds have different effects. Also that the percentage of THC in the dosage only has to be accurate to within 10%. According to the National Institutes of Health, only two THC-based medications, dronabinol and nabilone, have been approved by the FDA in pill form for treating nausea in patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy and to stimulate appetite in patients with wasting syndrome due to AIDS.
Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, was one of two Democrats who voted against the bill. Davis recently won the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, was the other Democrat rejecting the bill. She had offered an amendment that would have directed the governing commission to study expanding the number of potential licenses to 500 growers, 80 manufacturers, and 100 retailers. Republican leaders tabled the amendment.
In the bill, DHHS would take on the responsibility of maintaining a database of patients and issuing certification identification cards.
“NCDHHS has been working and will continue to work with the bill sponsors to ensure important safeguards are in the legislation and that it provides the resources necessary to effectively implement the legislation if it becomes law,” Kelly Haight Connor, communications manager at NCDHHS said in an emailed statement.
The appointed Commission also has the leeway to add additional conditions to the qualified use list and can make adjustments to some licensing requirements, labeling, and quality inspections.
“This is a drug, and you have to treat it as such,” said Hager. “It has a lot of potential benefit with not as much downside. We have and make sure the people who get it are the ones who need it, and this bill has those protections in place,” said Hager. “You hear about some of the bad things that have happened out west with this, but not the good things. The bill controls it very well, and why would you not prescribe a drug who could help someone?”
After Monday’s vote, the bill heads to the N.C. House.
“I would like to see what the House will do with this, whether they will find a way to create economic opportunity for more producers, but there are still a lot of moving pieces to this still,” said Tulloss. “It’s eventually going to happen, it’s coming. I will be interested to see how it shapes up into a new market for more N.C. farmers .”
Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, has indicated that SB 711 is unlikely to be a top priority for that chamber in the short session.