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OPINION: SB711 Is a Step Backward for Marijuana Legalization in NC

Medical marijuana, but for the benefit of a few

marijuana legalization in NC
Some see the proposed medical marijuana bill as a step toward full legalization in NC. Not so fast… (Photo by Melissa Rustemov)

On June 30, 2021, a milestone for marijuana legalization in NC was reached as the Compassionate Care Act, SB711, advanced through the Judicial Committee of the NCGA. While bills like this medical marijuana legislation have been introduced repeatedly during the past decade, this is the first time such a bill has been sponsored by Republicans, and the first time one has made it through a committee. 

Like all pieces of legislation, the devil is in the details, and after a closer look at the proposed law, SB 711 is not the victory some advocates for marijuana legalization in NC seem to think it is. To understand why that is, let’s go back a few years to understand why the NC GOP cannot be trusted with the state’s first step toward marijuana legalization. 

The plot began during a special session of the North Carolina General Assembly. It was the first Friday of December 2016, and the Democrats would take back NC’s governorship on the first day of the new year. For that reason, the GOP was busy hijacking some portions and dismantling other chunks of the state’s government. Lame-duck one-term Governor Pat McCrory was aggressively enacting laws. A legislative coup was taking place. 

McCrory had already lost the governor’s mansion and the GOP had lost its supermajority thanks in large part to their oppressive, hate-filled, homophobic HB2, aka “the bathroom bill.” Love, empathy, and common sense had won at the ballot box, but the GOP would not go quietly into the night. 

White supremacy and the Old Guard had been in control of North Carolina for more than 300 years, election results and voters’ rights be damned. 

Part of the coup involved eliminating incoming Governor Roy Cooper’s power to appoint trustees to the University of North Carolina system schools. This corrupt legislative theft effectively grants control of the entire UNC system and its $4-billion annual budget to the NC GOP. 

Four years after the heist, UNC’s Board of Trustees looks much like you’d expect: 21 of the 25 members are white, male, and Republican. And since the takeover, UNC has been a constant public disgrace: a significant student-athlete cheating scandal, the Silent Sam confederate statue controversy, the racist and misogynistic treatment of now-former professor Nikole Hannah-Jones, and conflict-of-interest fundraising improprieties with a Charlotte-based investment firm. Corruption and racism are ruling the day in Chapel Hill. 

But the University of North Carolina remains a fine institution for advanced learning. Along with Duke and NC State, UNC makes up one of North Carolina’s Research Triangle pillars. 

The Triangle — as North Carolinians refer to the three cities that house these universities — is one of the global research-and-development hotbeds for multinational technology, pharmaceuticals, biotech production, and ag-tech companies. Ajinomoto, Bayer, Biogen, bioMérieux, GlaxoSmithKline, IQVIA, LabCorp, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, and Syngenta are just some of the bio-pharma giants that occupy this region of NC. 

These corporate juggernauts have a deep and long-standing symbiotic relationship with UNC and the 15 other universities located within “The Triangle.” The universities educate a workforce and conduct research, and the corporations employ graduates and fund additional studies. 

marijuana legalization in NC
There’s still a long way to go toward marijuana legalization in NC, but will SB711 even help? (Photo by Melissa Rustemov)

One hand washes the other in this taxpayer-funded pipeline of global innovation and corporate greed. This is important context for nearly all the legislation that passes through the North Carolina General Assembly, including SB711. 

So let’s take a look at the so-called Compassionate Care Act and why legalization advocates should not only pull all support, but fight as hard as they can against it. 

The first bit of concerning language in SB711 is a production license cap of only 10, limiting the amount of providers who would be allowed to produce and distribute medical marijuana within the state. This piece of the bill mimics Florida’s medical marijuana program, and the NC GOP expects similar results. 

Out of the 37 states that have enacted medical marijuana programs, Florida’s program is widely considered the most corrupt (Here are just a few explanations why from the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Times-Union and the Orlando Sentinel). SB711’s sponsors want a medical marijuana program that will be politically corruptible and run by corporate cannabis cartels. Their strategy will turn medical marijuana into a pay-to-play scheme and dark money cash cow. But this is only the beginning of the caper.

Legislators also plan to form a Medical Cannabis Production Commission, which will have two permanent seats for the NC State Bureau of Investigation and The NC Sheriff’s Association. 

Law enforcement relies on the War on Drugs to justify much of their budgets, meaning these members of law enforcement will act as obstructionists for expanding production, ensuring the license cap will remain stuck at 10. Unless, of course, they are cut into the massive profits that come into the state through the medical marijuana program, but that would leave them fighting the corporations that are set to get that money (I’m getting to that). These are things to keep an eye on if SB711 is to pass. 

Perhaps the most clever piece of SB711 is the creation of the North Carolina Cannabis Research Program. This program will give state-controlled, Big-Pharma-adjacent UNC the majority of tax revenue, projected to exceed $100 million annually, to put toward medical marijuana research. 

The program’s goal, as stated in SB711 is to seek out the “best practices for the safe and efficient cultivation of cannabis, and analysis of genetic and healing properties of the many varied strains of cannabis to determine which strains may be best suited for a particular condition or treatment.” 

This scope of research will create empirical evidence that will generate patentable and proprietary applications for medical cannabis production, prescribability, and usage. 

Anyone involved with the cannabis industry in the U.S. or internationally should be terrified of North Carolina’s Compassionate Care Act. My warning, however, is more exact: North Carolina’s biggest power brokers are creating a corruptible medical marijuana program and using a prestigious university they have assimilated for funding patentable cannabis research for the pharmaceutical industry.

Their scheme will allow Big Pharma to fully control the marijuana industry once it is federally legalized. This outline is how the long-standing legislative powers serve their own corporate-political interests and while ensuring profitability and continued power. 

After several hundreds of years, the chokehold of supremacy politics still grips North Carolina. Marijuana legalization has the potential to create a healthier society with a more robust economic future. SB711 will ruin that potential. There is nothing compassionate about this legislation.

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