Jun 7, 2023 - News

NC medical marijuana's fate will soon be decided by House Republicans

Photo illustration of Senator Bill Rabon and medical drawings of cannabis sativa and abstract shapes in the background.

Photo illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Tribune News Service/Getty Images

The fate of medical marijuana in North Carolina now rests in the hands of House Republicans, who are weighing whether to push forward legislation to legalize it.

Driving the news: The state Senate passed the legislation in March, and it has since stalled in the House.

  • Republicans in the chamber are set to debate the issue behind closed doors in the coming weeks, and, if a majority of them back the bill, it will likely become law.

Why it matters: The bill would legalize medicinal marijuana for a short list of conditions including cancer, epilepsy and PTSD.

  • Similar legislation passed the Senate last year but died in the House chamber, where numerous conservative Republicans opposed it.

The intrigue: Whether it makes it across the finish line this year could ride on the influence and testimony of one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, Senate Rules chairman Bill Rabon, whose emotional speech in a House committee last week captured the attention of every person in the room.

  • "I've never heard a committee room as quiet as when [Rabon] told the story of his own medical cannabis use during cancer treatment," one lobbyist, Alex Miller, tweeted after the speech.

Between the lines: Rabon is in his seventh term in the Senate and serves Brunswick, Columbus and New Hanover counties. As chair of the Senate Rules committee, Rabon can decide what legislation ultimately makes it to the Senate floor, which bills must pass to become law.

  • Rabon's power and authority means that, when he chooses to sponsor legislation, it's much more likely to succeed.
  • If you're a legislator sponsoring a bill, you best not get on the Rules chairman's bad side if you ever want it to see the light of day.

Rabon, now 71, was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer when he was 48, he told a jam-packed committee room last Tuesday. His doctor told him he had 18 months to live and started chemotherapy.

  • Three months in, they ramped up treatment.
  • "I'm going to make you real sick," Rabon said his doctor warned. "I don't know if you can take it, but I'm going to try."
  • Then, his doctor made a recommendation: "You need to get some good marijuana."

With Rabon's doctor urging him to get his hands on marijuana to ease the severe side effects of chemotherapy, Rabon went to his local police chief and sheriff.

  • "I'm going to buy drugs illegally, and I want you to know," Rabon said he told them.
  • Rabon never had to buy it. From that point forward, it appeared in his mailbox, on an "as needed basis."

Rabon, a veterinarian, never missed a single day of work.

  • "I knew if I stopped, I would die," Rabon told the committee.
  • Rabon sat in a La-Z-Boy in between patients, and every day around 2pm, he would get so nauseous he "couldn't take it any more."
  • "I would walk outside, put my hands on the back of my building, and I would heave until I got enough strength to get in my truck and drive home."
  • When he got home, he would light up a joint. After "three puffs of marijuana, my symptoms would go away, before you could bat your eye."
  • It's the only reason he's alive today, Rabon said, and he knows tens of thousands of people in the state can benefit as he did.

Be smart: In the months since the Senate passed the legislation, lobbyists and other advocates of medical marijuana legalization have worked to whip up more support among House Republicans in hopes that the bill will become law.

  • It has already advanced slightly further in the House than it did last session.
  • Some lawmakers who were previously opposed to the idea have quietly changed their position altogether or said they will listen to debate with an open mind, but the fate of the legislation remains unclear.
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