Will Doran Will Doran


North Carolina’s medical marijuana legalization bill narrowly advanced out of a state Senate committee on Thursday, despite some vocal opposition.

Committees in the legislature don’t formally record lawmakers’ votes, but rather have them yell out how they’re voting. On Thursday, almost all of the Senate Health Care committee’s 15 members seemed to stay silent when asked to vote. One could be heard voting for the bill, and two could be heard voting against it.

But there might have been others who mumbled their support, because the bill passed anyway.

“Ayes have it,” said Republican Sen. Jim Perry, one of the committee’s chairs, formally sending the bill on to the Senate Rules Committee.

That will likely be the last stop for the marijuana proposal, Senate Bill 711, before it would go up for a vote before the full Senate — and then onto the House of Representatives if it passes. The bill is more or less guaranteed a warm welcome since the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Bill Rabon, is also the bill’s lead sponsor.

It did not receive a warm welcome Thursday, however.

Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine contrasted the push for medical marijuana — which has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — with other recent headlines about COVID-19 vaccines possibly being more widely mandated after receiving full FDA approval.

“We’re all supposed to say, ‘Look, they’re the scientists,’” Hise said. “Well, where are the FDA recommendations on medical marijuana?”

The FDA has not given approval to marijuana for medical use, although some cannabis derivatives have been approved. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and the FDA is part of the federal government. Unlike with vaccines, that has made scientific research into marijuana difficult.

The federal government allows only one research lab, at the University of Mississippi, to grow marijuana for scientific studies. But the Drug Enforcement Agency has routinely blocked the lab’s efforts to grow marijuana similar to the kind that people actually use, which has hampered research, according to a recent report in the scientific trade magazine Chemical and Engineering News.

On Thursday when the bill passed through the health care committee, it did so with a new amendment directly aimed at the research question.

Republican Sen. Michael Lee of Wilmington, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said the original version of the bill already would authorize scientists in the UNC System to study marijuana. But they neglected to include language allowing them to possess the marijuana in order to study, he said, so they added that in Thursday.


Another concern raised on the committee came from a Democrat, Sen. Gladys Robinson of Greensboro. She noted that the bill allowed for marijuana to be prescribed for sickle cell disease — a painful condition that disproportionately affects African Americans.

Robinson worked for years running a health care nonprofit that helps sickle-cell patients. She said some face racial discrimination when they ask for painkiller prescriptions, and she wanted to know what this bill would do about that for marijuana prescriptions.

“I’ve had patients going into hospitals for years and, because they had prescriptions for Oxycontin or whatever, they were accused of being drug-seekers,” she said.

Lee told her that people would actually be much less likely to face that sort of questioning over a marijuana prescription if this bill becomes law, due to some of its regulations.

“Unlike with other medications, this medication requires an ID card,” Lee said. “Not to mention the fact it’s within a database that can be searchable by law enforcement and also the health care community.”


The law enforcement angle came up again later, when Republican Sen. Jim Burgin raised concerns about probable cause. In recent years national news outlets have reported on police frustrated that, in some states, they can no longer claim to smell marijuana as probable cause to pull over and search someone’s car.

“All three of my sheriffs are against this bill, saying it’s going to cause a probable cause nightmare from them,” said Burgin, who represents Harnett, Lee and Johnston counties.

But for the most part the debate Thursday stuck to medical themes, since it was the health care committee.

Conservative opponents of medical marijuana have pointed to its lack of FDA approval ever since the bill was introduced, although previously it had been leaders of Christian groups making those comments, not lawmakers. On Thursday, Hise also brought up their concern that once North Carolina legalizes medical marijuana, full legalization won’t be far behind — something he said he agrees with.

“Maybe society is changing to accept this one day,” Hise said. “But I just didn’t want to be part of taking the first steps.”

Public polling indicates the acceptance has probably already happened.

For decades, public opinion was solidly against marijuana, according to Pew Research Center polling. But that has starkly changed in recent years.

A 2019 Pew poll found 91% of Americans support legalization of medical marijuana and 59% support full legalization.

In North Carolina, both medical and recreational marijuana have the support of a majority of the population, according to a poll this year by Elon University. The levels of support here are slightly lower than the national levels, according to Elon’s findings, with 73% of North Carolinians supporting medical marijuana and 54% in support of full legalization.

The News & Observer previously reported that, looking more closely at the polling data, it showed that 64% of Republican voters in North Carolina would support medical marijuana — as would 75% of Democratic voters and 79% of independents.

The broad support for medical marijuana is perhaps reflected in Rabon’s support. The Southport Republican is one of the most influential lawmakers in the legislature. Lee and Democratic Sen. Paul Lowe of Winston-Salem are its two other main backers.

On Thursday, Lowe said the medical profession widely uses opioids to treat pain, which are made from the same chemicals as heroin. He questioned why doctors shouldn’t be able to prescribe marijuana instead, given the state’s struggles with opioid addiction.

“We should do everything we can to safely and correctly make it available,” Lowe said.