The N.C. House voted Wednesday, 92-9, in favor of Senate Bill 448, legalizing FDA-approved THC medications. The vote indicates that a separate bill, Senate Bill 711, passed by the Senate Monday legalizing medical marijuana, could be dead on arrival in the House.
The bill the House sent to the governor on Wednesday outlines amendments to Schedule VI of the Controlled Substances Act that would allow prescription drugs containing marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC, to be sold and used in North Carolina only if the FDA approves the drug.
The passage comes after the Senate gave final approval Monday to legalize the use of medical marijuana in the state under The Compassionate Care Act (S.B. 711), regardless of FDA approval. It 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.
During Wednesday’s House debate, Rep. Larry Pitman, R-Cabarrus, tried to add an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act that, regardless of any action by the FDA or federal government, marijuana would not be legalized in North Carolina. Pittman’s amendment was ruled out of order.
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, urged her fellow representatives to vote no on Pittman’s amendment because she said it would probably take away Epidiolex, a marijuana-derived drug that treats seizures in children who have epilepsy.
“The first sentence in the title of this is an act to in the absence of the objection from the commission for mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services, this would be automatic,” she said. “They still have a right to do exactly what they were doing before in that commission. They can still object if they have an FDA-cleared drug that they don’t want to come to North Carolina. I have to remind you these are FDA-cleared drugs. This is not marijuana legalization.”
Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, also urged a vote of no on the amendment because she said some children had to go to Colorado years ago for treatment of uncontrollable seizures.
Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, one of the original co-sponsors of S.B. 448 in the Senate, was in Denver, Colorado this week attending a National Conference of Legislators at the time of passage.
“We can get FDA-approved drugs out to the public sooner with this bill,” Burgin told Carolina Journal during a phone interview.
A chair of the Senate’s Health Care Committee and Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, Burgin said he got involved with the bill because of Epidiolex and the help it gives to children with epilepsy. There are more drugs in the pipeline that contain THC, but he stressed the importance of having them become FDA-tested and approved to treat some of the same conditions outlined in the Compassionate Care Act.
Burgin worries that if the state allows drugs that haven’t gone through the FDA testing and approval process, we could face bigger consequences down the road.
“My big concern is we are going to introduce a product that is going to be another smoking issue,” Burgin said. “We spent billions of dollars to [get people] to stop smoking and stop the harmful effects of smoking, and now we are going to reintroduce smoking potentially to a big part of the population, and that concerns me.”
Burgin said a lot of military personnel have told him they need marijuana for post-traumatic stress, but he asks them what it does to get rid of PTS because the marijuana only deals with the symptoms, not the underlying problem.
“There are a lot of other states where recreational or medical is legal, and there are 21 or 22 veterans a day that commit suicide,” he said. “You would think the states that legalized the medical, that it would decrease, but there are studies that I have read lately that show that it worsens their depression and makes them more likely to commit suicide with regular use.”
In Colorado, where Burgin is meeting with other lawmakers this week, recreational marijuana was legalized by a state constitutional amendment in 2012, and medical marijuana was legalized there in 2000.
The policies led to “cannabis tourism” for the state, but since then drug crime and traffic deaths related to marijuana use spiked 109%. Use among those age 12 and older is 98% higher than the national average, and more than 60 jurisdictions in the state have banned dispensaries. Taxes paid on legal marijuana purchases represent less than one-tenth of the state budget.
A park in Denver had to be closed last year because it turned into a homeless tent city and haven for crime and drug abuse. It was eventually cleared out by authorities. Burgin says he does not want to see N.C. cities look like Denver.
“I have seen people laying out, looking like they are dead, others crouched around smoking pot. There were hundreds of people in that condition. There are more marijuana dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks.”
According to research published by the National Institutes of Health, the black market for marijuana in Colorado has also triggered a problem with harder, illegal drugs.
“I was talking to some legislators, and they told me the tax on the recreational [marijuana] is so high and there is a smaller tax on the medical [marijuana], so the people don’t want to pay the tax and buy the black market drugs, and they are having a lot of trouble with fentanyl in those drugs,” he added.
Burgin was one of 10 votes against the Senate’s Compassionate Care Act, but there are circumstances where he could support legalizing medical marijuana; if the FDA approves it in the form of an inhaler, nebulizer, or drops. Legalizing it in an edible form is a nonstarter to him because a child could get it. In smokable form he is concerned about risks of lung cancer.
S.B. 448 now heads to Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. Cooper can sign it, veto it, or allow it to become law with no action.