During its latest legislative session, North Carolina has become the latest state to wrestle with legalizing medicinal and recreational cannabis. Although the focus for many lawmakers has been enacting a limited medical marijuana measure, other lawmakers are introducing a separate bill attempting to legalize recreational cannabis use in the state.
Does either measure stand a chance of advancing to the governor’s desk during this legislative cycle? Will enthusiasm over one bill hinder the chances of the other? The fate of marijuana legislation rests in the hands of North Carolina’s lawmakers, but advocates for cannabis reform remain optimistic this time around.
The Push to Legalize Recreational Marijuana in North Carolina
During the final weeks of March, legislators in the North Carolina State Senate filed Senate Bill 346. A small coalition of Democratic senators sponsored the measure calling for legalizing cannabis for recreational use in North Carolina.
The senators who introduced the legislation say that cannabis prohibition is wasteful and destructive. They liken the ban on cannabis to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. Advocates say this useless measure diverts law enforcement resources from violent crimes and shifts the focus to unfairly targeting communities of color for drug offenses.
The bill would legalize recreational marijuana use and possession for adults over 21. It would also enact a 20 percent state tax on the sale of cannabis products, allowing municipalities to enact another 3 percent tax. The state would distribute the tax revenue from the sale of recreational cannabis to new and existing programs, including a newly created Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund and Cannabis Education and Technical Assistance Fund. It would also funnel tax revenue into existing infrastructure programs like the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The measure would only legalize the possession of marijuana to up to two ounces of cannabis flower or 15 grams of concentrated cannabis. Individuals would also only be allowed six cannabis plants. Public use of marijuana would remain prohibited, as well as driving while using marijuana.
Additionally, the bill would create an Office of Social Equity. This office would promote and encourage participation in the cannabis industry from communities disproportionately hurt by marijuana prohibition and enforcement, such as low-income communities and communities of color.
In another bid to help communities shake the stigma of marijuana possession, the bill’s sponsors included a provision that would expunge a conviction for a previous marijuana possession charge, offering some people in the state a clean slate.
Dueling Legalization Bills?
Senate Bill 346 is a new addition to the legislative slate. Meanwhile, a bill seeking to legalize medicinal marijuana is already progressing through the state legislature. Recently, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana for patients with qualifying medical conditions in the state. If passed, patients diagnosed with cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and multiple sclerosis could purchase medicinal cannabis products from local dispensaries.
Under the measure, smoking and vaping cannabis for therapeutic purposes would be allowed. However, doctors would be required to prescribe a specific method of marijuana delivery to their patients. Doctors would also have to prescribe specific cannabis dosages and reevaluate a patient’s eligibility annually.
The measure would also establish a Compassionate Use Advisory Board that could add new qualifying conditions without legislative approval.
Traditionally, Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to pass marijuana reform measures. However, in this session, House Speaker Tim Moore (R) says the legislature’s new makeup may create a new pathway for the passage of marijuana reform. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) also indicates that the construction of the medical marijuana bill addresses many of the concerns people have traditionally had with legalizing cannabis.
North Carolina, Ready for Reform
The introduction of two separate cannabis reform bills shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Recent polls indicate that North Carolina residents are ready for change. Three in four North Carolina voters support a measure to legalize medical cannabis in the state.
Separate polling suggests that at least 54 percent of North Carolina voters support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in the state. Many believe that opening cannabis reform could help boost the economy.
Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has also come out in support of legalization and says he believes medicinal marijuana legislation has a chance to pass during this current legislative session. Additionally, he has signaled his support for broader cannabis reform and the decriminalization of cannabis possession.
Following President Joe Biden’s mass pardon announcement in October 2022, Gov. Cooper asked state attorneys to review pardon authority for marijuana offenses. Possessing more than half an ounce of marijuana is a class 1 misdemeanor offense.
What Comes Next for Cannabis Reform in North Carolina?
After passing the Senate, North Carolina’s medical marijuana bill moved to the House for consideration. Senate Bill 346, seeking to legalize recreational marijuana, passed only a first reading. It is now awaiting action in the Senate’s committee on rules and operations, still far from a full Senate vote. Of the two measures, advocates are hopeful at least one stands a chance of making it to the governor’s desk and gaining his signature to become law.
There seems to be growing enthusiasm and bipartisan support for passing the medicinal marijuana measure. However, legalizing recreational marijuana in North Carolina may still face an uphill battle as some lawmakers remain skeptical and concerned. With support from voters and the governor, the fate of cannabis in North Carolina is now in the hands of local lawmakers.
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