Up In Smoke

 

The Uphill Battle to Pass a Medical Marijuana Law in North Carolina

by Kimberly Lawson

According to a recent poll from Elon University, 80 percent of people in North Carolina support passing a bill that would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Mary (whose name has been changed for this story) is one of them. For many years, the 35-year-old lived with a pacemaker to treat arrhythmias, until it was finally time to undergo a heart transplant. The opioids she was prescribed after her surgery wreaked even more havoc on her body, not to mention her spirit, and eventually she had to undergo treatment to be weaned off of them.

To help her cope with the pain and nausea from her withdrawal symptoms, she started smoking recreational marijuana—medical marijuana isn’t an option in North Carolina. It worked wonders, she said. It’s been four years since her surgery, and she’s now an active yoga instructor and mother.

A number of studies in recent years have lauded the benefits of medicinal cannabis, including for chronic pain. Many patients report preferring it to pharmaceuticals. One study, published in the April issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, found a correlation between medical marijuana laws and hospitalizations due to opioid overdose (an epidemic that has quadrupled overdose deaths in the United States since 1999): In states that legalized medical marijuana, hospitalization rates for opioid painkiller dependence and abuse dropped on average 23 percent. Similar research out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last year found that states with medicinal marijuana laws on the books had 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths.

Twenty-nine states, plus Washington, D.C., have medical marijuana laws. In fact, West Virginia just passed theirs in April. Yet despite the growing evidence in support of cannabis being used to treat pain, North Carolina has been slow to join the green movement.

Jon Kennedy is the treasurer for the North Carolina chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He’s been working with the organization for approximately five years, and says in that time he’s seen support for legalizing medical marijuana among North Carolinians steadily grow.

“We went from a little over half of people in the state thinking a doctor should have the right to recommend medical cannabis to people to now four out of five people in North Carolina,” he says. “The problem is there’s a disconnect between what people are saying should happen and what the state legislature is actually doing.”

Three medical marijuana bills were introduced in the 2017 legislative session: two in the Senate, which Kennedy says was a first, and another in the House. Technically, Kennedy says, House Bill 180 is actually still alive because it proposed a constitutional amendment and will be carried over to the short session for discussion. “But just based on history, we’re not real optimistic that it’s going to go very far simply because it doesn’t have wild support,” he explains, “and it’s very similar to previous bills that have been filed in the House of Representatives with the same co-sponsors.”

In fact, Charlotte’s Rep. Kelly Alexander, the primary sponsor of HB 180, has introduced medical marijuana legislation in the last five consecutive sessions. But Kennedy says lawmakers “seem to be afraid” of even discussing legalization, possibly because of old, debunked propaganda about marijuana being a gateway to harder drugs or the notion that legalization will lead to children gaining access. But, he says, thanks to states like Colorado, “all the statistics are in our favor, yet there’s a huge disconnect with the General Assembly.”

The only way to get traction on medical marijuana legalization in North Carolina, Kennedy says, is for supporters to reach out to lawmakers and start a healthy conversation about the issue. There’s no ballot initiative in North Carolina, so in order to make headway on any issue, a legislator needs to sponsor a bill and garner enough support for it to pass.

“There’s a big wall that we’re trying to overcome,” Kennedy says, “and that wall is there for any number of reasons. What is for certain is we have a problem, in that we’re not actually having an open conversation about what the risks are and what the benefits are.”

The good news is that many people championing this cause actually know first-hand the impact of medical marijuana. “A significant percent of the people who are drawn to NORML to try to get the laws changed have found that, whether they have fibromyalgia or muscular dystrophy, it helps with managing their pain better than prescription medication,” Kennedy says. “And it helps so much that they’re actually willing to come out of the cannabis closet and confess that they use an illegal plant … they’re willing to put themselves on the front line.”

For more information, visit NCNORML.org.

Kimberly Lawson is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Augusta, Georgia. Visit her website at kim-lawson.com.

 

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