News & Opinion

Medical Marijuana Advocates Face Another Year with No NC Legislation

close up of hands holding marijuana buds with prescription
The Compassionate Care Act would legalize medical marijuana for a limited scope of people. (AdobeStock photo)

Chris Suttle planned his funeral five years ago. 

The commercial insurance consultant was diagnosed with a frontal lobe brain mass in 2017. Doctors left him with two choices: undergo a full craniotomy and biopsy the mass to see if it was aggressive or simply wait out his fate. 

Instead, the Chapel Hill resident started using cannabis. He said he believes that with cannabis his symptoms diminished significantly.

“I started my own microdosing procedure with no knowledge of whether this was going to work or not,” Suttle said. “When I went back, we did the scan, the tumor had not shrunk, but it also had not grown and all the swelling in the brain was gone. My speech was back, my vision was back, I wasn’t blacking out, I didn’t have word aphasia anymore.”

Suttle continued the microdosing procedure for another six months and when he returned for another scan he said his tumor had shrunk by a minute amount (.02%), which he said he believes is related to his cannabis use. 

“[My doctor] was amazed,” Suttle said. “You have to remember the last time my doctor saw me was when they gave me this diagnosis.” 

The experience inspired Suttle to start lobbying for cannabis legislation. Five years later, he’s still at it. He thought that this year, his efforts were going to bear fruit, but his hopes were dashed when the North Carolina General Assembly declined to move on a bill that would have legalized the medical use of marijuana in the legislative session that recessed a few weeks ago. Although lawmakers were due back in Raleigh on July 26 to tie up loose ends from their work this year, they didn’t take up significant legislation at that time. 

For Suttle and others with similar diagnoses who want to try using medical marijuana for their conditions in North Carolina, they will likely have to wait another year.

Who qualifies? 

The Compassionate Care Act, proposed in 2021, would legalize medical marijuana for a limited scope of people with certain diagnosed medical conditions. 

State Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Southport), a primary sponsor, said the bill would make medical marijuana “very tightly regulated” and would be one of the strictest in the nation.

The bill passed the North Carolina Senate with bipartisan support, and bipartisan opposition, but its eventual success there was largely due to Rabon’s encouragement. However, the bill stalled in the House.

“The Senate has already agreed that we like the bill,” Rabon said in an interview. “The House, it’s now in their hands, and then if they want to make changes, we’ll come back, we’ll sit down together, and we will work out the differences if there are any. Let’s hope there aren’t any.”

With neighboring state Virginia legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in July 2021, advocates in this state were hopeful the Senate bill would create some momentum.

“I had my hopes, I had my hopes,” Suttle said, noting the bill had the support of Rabon, who chairs one of the Senate’s most powerful committees. “I did hope that it would be this year and I’m still hopeful that we can have the talks and make the movement that we need to make this year to get the legalization we deserve for the state we love.”

Trina Sargent, who moved from Ohio to North Carolina a month ago, said she began using medical marijuana a little over a year ago for pain management through Green Compassion Network, Ohio’s medical marijuana program. 

Sargent, who suffers from fibromyalgia, anxiety, PTSD and other ailments, said medical cannabis helped her with muscle pain and sleep. Now that she is in North Carolina, she no longer has access to medical marijuana.

“It’s hard. It’s very hard because I don’t have it,” Sargent said. “My body’s aching all the time. My stomach is bothering me and my sleep patterns are way off. It is really bothering my system.

“People don’t realize what just marijuana can actually do for the human body. I never took it for recreational uses. Never did that. I researched it before I tried it, before I did anything. I was very careful and not having it now it’s changing my body completely. I keep looking on the internet, to find out, ‘Hey when is the law going to be passed?’” 

But even if the Compassionate Care Act had passed this session, both Sargent and Suttle would not have qualified for use due to the narrow scope outlined in the bill. 

It’s a frustration. 

“I stood up in the first Senate hearing that we had on medicinal cannabis and told them that the way the bill is written right now with Senate 711, I would not qualify,” Suttle said. “Therefore I would be dead.”

Medicinal vs. recreational 

Though Sargent is a big proponent of medical marijuana for pain management, she said she does not think marijuana should be used recreationally. 

“I just would like to see this law pass. I don’t (use it) for recreation, no, absolutely no, no, no and no,” she argued. “I know people are going to try to find it no matter what, but I don’t agree with them passing the law on recreational use.

“But for medicinal purposes, it should be passed because there are people that are really in pain.”

Though there is case-based evidence about the effectiveness of medical marijuana, Allyn Howlett, one of the nation’s leading cannabinoid researchers and professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said marijuana cannot be classified as medicinal because it has not yet been approved for that use by the Food and Drug Administration.

“I just don’t think it should be called medical if it is not going to be going through the Food and Drug Administration and provide the same kinds of data and the same guidelines that all medicines do when they get approved to be used in patients,” Howlett said. 

For Dr. James Taylor, an anesthesiologist with a pain practice in Southern Pines, North Carolina’s legalization of hemp in 2015 has helped him treat patients with cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD) products. Without it, he argues he would have had to increase patient narcotics requirements, disrupting their treatment process.

“These patients are kind of on the edge. They’re really high for overdose and suicide [risk] and to kind of mess with their medication management in a political way, it has risk associated,” Taylor said.  “So I’d be concerned, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Though he does agree with medical marijuana legislation, he thinks revisions need to be made to the bill to ensure hemp farmers and those already in the hemp industry, like himself, have a seat at the table.

As it is written, the current bill requires five years of experience in the medical marijuana industry. Because medical marijuana is currently illegal in North Carolina, those in the hemp industry would not be able to provide services.

“Since we don’t have marijuana here, it almost gave it to out-of-state, big companies to say, ‘Only out-of-state big companies who’ve been doing this medical marijuana for five years are allowed to come into our state and provide the services.’ It really kind of was unjust to the farmers, processors, the extractors and the people like myself, who’ve been working for the last six years in the state to develop the hemp industry, which is the same thing as the medical marijuana industry except all this product doesn’t have the THC in it,” Taylor said, referring to the psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol.

“We don’t need out-of-staters coming in to tell us how to run a medical marijuana program.”

Nonetheless, Taylor said he is excited that the conversation is starting to happen in North Carolina.

“I applaud them for putting physicians on the commission and I would encourage them to make sure that number stays high,” he said. “With a medical marijuana program, you really want it being physician-led versus political- or business-led, so I thought they did a nice job of pulling physicians and getting physicians involved in this whole process.”

Status of hemp vs. marijuana in NC

Medical marijuana has not been the only hot topic this legislative session. In an unprecedented turn of events there have been changes around hemp in this year’s version of the Farm Act. On June 22, hemp language was taken out of the 2022 Farm Act, which was already in statute, leaving some state lawmakers and advocates disappointed.

In response to the removal of the language, Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville) a primary sponsor for the bill, and a proponent of hemp cultivation, said he felt like “pigs walking into slaughter,” during a House Agriculture meeting on June 22.

He was not the only one that felt this way. Some local dispensaries, selling CBD, Delta-8, and other hemp derived products said they felt uneasy about the future of their businesses.

For Jennifer Wilson, co-owner of Nature’s Releaf Hemp Store, the erasure of THC language would mean re-evaluating her and her husband’s entire business.

Jennifer Wilson stands behind the counter at Nature’s Releaf
Jennifer Wilson, co-owner of Nature’s Releaf stands with cannabidiol (CBD), Delta-8, and other hemp-derived products. (Photo by Mona Dougani)

“If you get rid of hemp, you get rid of the store. We would have to turn into something else,” Ian Brown, an associate from the business said in an interview with NC Health News. 

In the past three years, the store which opened in June 2019 has established three locations and is planning a fourth.

Being able to offer a variety helps a variety of people, argued Leea Carver, another associate from Nature’s Releaf. “You can’t expect one product to help everybody. You need different things to help with different ailments and different people. If you get rid of any THC language, we’re only able to carry one thing, and we’re only gonna help one kind of person.”

In a last-minute reprieve for hemp farmers and distributors across the state on June 29, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 455, legalizing hemp statewide just a day before a pilot program that had legalized it in the first place was set to expire.

With no foreseeable movement from the Compassionate Care Act this year, advocates for medical marijuana have still not given up.

“We need to protest and we need to make it strong,” Suttle said. He and others held a protest in Raleigh on July 26.

Some have their eyes on a bigger prize, however.

In April, Charlotte-based Crowntown Cannabis co-owner Michael Sims said inaction from the state legislature would “not only kill us, they [would] kill this industry, they [would] kill our business.” After the passage of Senate Bill 455, he was thankful for the last-minute vote, but skeptical of the intentions of state lawmakers.

“I’m happy with the turnout of this issue, although this could have been resolved months ago. Once again certain NC politicians used the existence of our industry as leverage to get a vote on the horrendous SB711,” Sims said, referencing the Compassionate Care Act.

He’s been a staunch opponent of bill, stating that it only works in a way that would effectively shut out independent hemp farmers and others in the hemp industry from participating, and could push them out of the cannabis industry altogether. 

“We still need to fight aggressively to get access to legal adult-use cannabis,” he continued. “The citizens of this state overwhelmingly want cannabis to be completely legal. Today is a win but we know better than to let our guard down.” 

This article originally appeared at North Carolina Health News, an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Ryan Pitkin contributed reporting to this story. 

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