There’s no reason to expect the N.C. General Assembly to enact a bill this year or next that will legalize marijuana in any way, even for medicinal purposes. But it’s gratifying that this week, the leaders of the state Senate allowed a debate on the issue to begin.
For that, we can thank Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, one of the lead sponsors of Senate Bill 711, a medical-marijuana that would allow people under a doctor’s care for cancer, epilepsy, PTSD or several ailments to buy marijuana from state-licensed suppliers.
Rabon is chairman of the Senate’s rules committee, which makes him someone even Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has to listen to. So the bill got a hearing on Wednesday, the first for any such measure.
But it didn’t get an immediate vote, and Berger, despite having to listen to Rabon, has made sure that the bill’s path to passage will be long and arduous.
It has to make it through no less than four Senate committees — Judiciary, which conducted Wednesday’s hearing, followed by Finance, then Health Care and finally the rules panel — before reaching the Senate floor.
That sort of multi-committee chain review of a bill isn’t something the Senate leader dictates when he wants a bill to pass.
But it’s also not the fate typical of legislation Berger wants to kill outright. Those get a trip straight to the rules committee, never to be seen again.
And that’s just what happened to the full-on legalization bill Granville County’s Senate delegate, Sen. Mike Woodard, co-sponsored early in this session with two other Democrats.
Recognizing the immediate reality, Woodard has signed on to Rabon’s bill, which as of this week has bipartisan sponsorship from three Republicans and three Democrats.
Its text acknowledges that North Carolina is already well behind the curve on the issue, as 36 of the country’s 50 states have already “removed state-level criminal penalties” for the medical use of cannabis.
At this point, the hold-outs on medical marijuana are the former Confederacy — minus Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas — plus a few states in the Midwest.
Legalization of any sort in the South has always faced an uphill battle thanks to old-school temperance campaigners like the Rev. Mark Creech, who was on hand during Wednesday’s hearing to oppose Rabon’s bill.
Creech prefers stringent controls on intoxicants of all forms, even alcohol, the latter of which remains a theological oddity given that the Bible tells us Jesus turned water into wine and served wine at the Last Supper.
But as more and more states act, it’s a matter of when, not if, marijuana is fully legalized here and in the U.S. generally, and not just for medicinal purposes.
Virginia’s move toward full legalization, the opening phase of which takes effect next week, will put more pressure on North Carolina legislators to act. The long-term alternative is revenue losses and a succession of border-county legal disputes in places like the Tri-County over the possession of small quantities of pot.
Legislators, farmers and businesspeople have already seen that the continuance of marijuana prohibition undermines the possibilities of developing the already-legal hemp industry. As they’re both cannabis byproducts, a cop can’t readily tell the difference between legal hemp and illegal weed. Nothing discourages the growth of business like the threat of getting arrested.
Finally, we’re fast approaching the time when the public will tire of legislative foot-dragging.
Tens of millions of Americans, hundreds of millions even, have smoked marijuana. For them, it’s on par with legal intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco in everything but its legality. Maintaining prohibition on one and not the others exemplifies the sort of because-I-say-so governance that even fourth-graders find grating.