Could New Bern and the rest of North Carolina finally be ready for legalization?
Why is a naturally growing plant with the potential to ease the suffering of patients from a multitude of medical ailments still unavailable to many who need it most? Why is that same plant, after 50 years of scientific research to the contrary, still listed by the US government as being every bit as dangerous as heroin and LSD?
These are the types of questions being asked by patients, physicians, and lawmakers across the nation, as the rising chorus of support for the legalization of medical marijuana grows louder each year. The groundswell of support has led to the medical use of marijuana being legalized in 36 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
And though it may have been slow in getting here, the rising green tide seems to have finally arrived in North Carolina, with the possibility of legalization becoming a still-tentative but very real possibility for the first time in the state’s history.
A recent Elon University poll found that 73% of North Carolina voters support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes and 54% support legalization for recreational use.
Those numbers seem to have made an impact on state lawmakers. Filed in early April, Senate Bill 711, the Compassionate Care Act, would legalize medical cannabis and create a framework for regulation and distribution. The bill would grant licenses to a total of 10 distributors who would each have the option of setting up four access sites, for a total of 40 distribution centers statewide.
More:Senate Bill 711
The bill would also establish an electronic medical cannabis registry database of all qualified patients and designated caregivers. On the distribution end, each licensed supplier would pay a steep monthly fee equal to 10% of the gross revenue derived from the sale of cannabis products at all medical cannabis centers operated by the supplier.
The fate of SB711 remains far from certain, however. Referred to the Senate Finance Committee of July 1, it faces an uphill battle that has much to do with historical misinformation and racial and economic bias, and virtually nothing to do with scientific fact.
Is a flawed medical marijuana law better than nothing?
The Sun Journal spoke with two New Bern natives who operate businesses related to the hemp industry, both of whom are keeping a close eye on SB711 and other state and federal marijuana legislation.
Max Oglesby, owner of the Above the Roots CBD and smokable hemp stores in New Bern and Havelock, is a longtime advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana. In 2019 he lobbied the New Bern Board of Aldermen to pass a resolution asking that the question of whether or not to legalize marijuana for medical use be presented to local municipalities. The board voted 5-2 against the resolution, with aldermen Jameesha Harris and Barbara Best being the lone yes votes.
Oglesby said he has decidedly mixed feelings about SB711. While he acknowledges that it is a step in the right direction and “better than nothing,” he said the proposed legislation has serious flaws.
“Calling it the Compassionate Care Act is a slap in the face. What medical program does not allow homegrown, what medical program limits it to 10 distributors and out of those 10 they can have up to four places as long as they pay $50,000 and $5,000 for every place they want to open on top of that?” asked Oglesby. “That is absurd.”
Oglesby said he believes the bill, as currently written, is far too limited in scope.
“You have 100 counties and you’re maxing it out at 40 dispensaries if that? Who thought of that?”
Oglesby is far more enthusiastic about another state bill, SB646, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use. With the bill stalled in the Senate’s Rules and Operations Committee since April 7 however, he admitted it has little chance of becoming law.
“That bill’s amazing. It has the basic stuff that other states have, where dispensaries would have to be 1,000 feet from schools and churches and things like that, and places that dispense marijuana only dispense marijuana,” said Oglesby. “They have background checks that are done, you have a complete system for oversight. It’s properly written and thought out. But of course that’s something that’s been pushed for how many years in a row?
Oglesby said he gives SB711 a 50-50 chance of being approved by the general assembly. He said he hoped the bill could be improved in the meantime.
“Plenty of veterans have come forward, plenty of cancer patients have come forward who have used it and said under how it’s currently written they wouldn’t even qualify for it,” he commented. “If we become the 37th state to medically legalize, why can’t we just copy what the other 36 have done, because obviously anarchy has not run rampant there, so why would it here?”
What would it take to get a similar bill passed in North Carolina? People have to be willing to speak out, said Oglesby, and lawmakers have to be willing to listen to those who would be most affected by the law.
“Legislators need to honestly sit down with someone who was an opioid abuser at one time, who is now using cannabis,” he commented. “They need to sit down with someone who was at the Duke cancer facility, walked outside and tried to smoke a joint and got a ticket for it. They need to talk to the veteran who put a gun against his head who is over-prescribed opioids and antidepressants.”
Oglesby has firsthand experience with many of the medical issues he addresses. While he was serving in the US Army his brother was diagnosed with leukemia. He passed away in September 2014.
“While we were at the Duke cancer facility they had mentioned, slyly, ‘Hey, cannabis. We can’t officially say it, but we can tell you it will help.’ And just that one sentence…after I got out of the military I hit the ground running.”
In 2018, Oglesby opened the first Above the Roots store in Havelock. He said he currently uses marijuana to treat medical problems related to his military service.
“I’m a proponent for marijuana. I have my own anxiety and PTSD issues that I have to deal with as well as chronic back pain.”
Oglesby said he sees the need for a generational shift in local government if the legalization of marijuana is to be accepted in cities like New Bern.
“We need younger people in there, not career politicians,” he asserted. “It’s a good old boys club here, let’s just be honest. And I guarantee you that when this bill goes or if they rewrite it, the same people who sat in those seats and told me no are the same people who are going to apply to run it.”
Looking to the future of the cannabis industry in NC
As the CEO of Root Bioscience, a company that specializes in hemp products, Garrett Perdue is also invested in the fate of SB711. Perdue said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the bill would make it through the NC Senate, but was unsure about its passage in the House.
Though he feels it is too narrow in terms of distribution points and needs to be expanded to grant access to a larger patient population, Perdue said he fully supported the bill.
“I’m strongly of the opinion that any step is a good step,” he stressed. “This bill addresses the most critical patient population in North Carolina and it’s a pretty strong good-faith gesture by the general assembly to create additional access points. So I strongly support any effort to move it forward.”
Perdue said he believed there may be more support for medical marijuana across the state than even the Elon poll suggested.
“Some of the national polls are in the high 80s or low 90s. Most North Carolinians I know believe that people should have access to cannabis as an alternative wellness drug,” he commented. “ It’s clear that prohibition is a failed policy on many fronts and I’m hopeful this is a turning point within the governing body that the members are ready to take this action.”
An attorney who began his career working with government regulatory issues, Perdue started exploring cannabis issues in 2015 as a way to expand his practice. In 2017 he set up the non-profit Sensible South to advocate for state regulations that allow patients to access cannabis for medical purposes. Soon after he opened Root Bioscience
“My personal experiences range from family members who have committed suicide to close personal friends who battled opioid addiction, and these are areas where cannabis treatments of some kind could have had an impact,” explained Perdue. “So we’ve been looking at cannabis as an alternative wellness program for quite some time.”
Perdue said he sees the cannabis industry as key to North Carolina’s future and Root Bioscience. It will become increasingly hard for members of the general assembly, facing declining revenue sources across the state, to continue to ignore the economic potential of cannabis, he believes.
“The Research Triangle Park was built for opportunities like this. Since the early days of the business we’ve been planning to have a proper cannabis operation, and we’d like to have it right here in New Bern,” said Perdue.
Federal legislation seeks to end marijuana stigma
On July 14, Democrats in the US Senate moved to advance legislation that would end federal prohibition of marijuana and remove it from the government’s list of controlled substances.
Under the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, marijuana would be removed from the Controlled Substance Act so it can be regulated and taxed.
The bill calls for those who have been arrested and convicted of non-violent marijuana charges to have their records expunged from federal records.
Both Oglesby and Perdue said it’s high time that the stigma surrounding marijuana use was consigned to the past.
“We as a country invested considerable resources into demonizing this plant in particular. But ultimately I would suggest that this is nothing more than a plant that has over 120 cannabinoids. CBD is the one that people are beginning to talk about but it’s a library of potential molecules that each has significant impact on the human system,” said Perdue.
“I would also say that God gave us an endocannabinoid system,” he added, “so there’s some kind of specific intention that our bodies interact with cannabinoids.”