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Coming out for cannabis

After the General Assembly killed off the Medical Cannabis Act again, advocates are pushing for a public discussion



In the almost three-and-a-half-minute long YouTube video, a handful of clean-cut, well-dressed people share their "best kept secret." Against the subtle notes of a piano, the opening shots cut between people who look nervous; one guy blows out a breath. Before long, each person shares who might not know their secret — parents, professional colleagues, grandma — and why they're afraid to share.

"Lazy. Unproductive. Airhead." Those are the descriptors one guy was afraid people in his life would assign to him if they knew he used cannabis for inspiration.

By the end of the video, though, each person shares their first and last name. It's their "coming out green" moment.

Last week, California-based media group Green Flower launched a campaign aimed at ending the social stigma surrounding marijuana. It's a move that falls in line with the works of local legalization advocates, who are championing users to stand up for the cause and help create a public discussion about the drug's benefit. Once again, North Carolina lawmakers chose the path of regress by killing off House Bill 78 — the Medical Cannabis Act — last month, despite a February 2015 Public Policy Poll that found 70 percent of North Carolinians believe physicians should be able to prescribe marijuana for medical use.

ON MARCH 25, the Judiciary I Committee held a public hearing for citizens to share their opinions on the proposed bill. Rep. Kelly Alexander and 14 co-sponsors were working to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

But after an hour-long hearing — and no debate amongst the lawmakers — Union County's Rep. Dean Arp made the motion to issue the bill an unfavorable report, killing the proposal and prohibiting any similar measures from being considered this session. The vote was unanimous.

"It was like kabuki theater," Jon Kennedy, board chairman for the N.C. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says. "Just giving us the opportunity to feel like we'd been listened to. But their minds had been made up before the public debate had ever been opened in the first place."

Rebecca Forbes was one of the people who attended the public hearing and spoke in favor of medical marijuana based on her personal experience. Forbes shared in a recent phone interview with CL that she's survived cancer and a deadly form of lymphoma because of a daily regimen of cannabis oil. She buys her marijuana locally and uses a machine to infuse it with coconut oil. She takes three spoonfuls a day.

Part of the reason Forbes has been so public about her use — she says she's not afraid of getting arrested — and why she testified in front of the Judiciary Committee, is because she wants the state to provide her with safer access. "I chose to break the law to stay alive," she says. "You don't always know on the black market if there's chemicals on the cannabis or things like that. It's kind of like playing Russian roulette until we get these leaders to give us a program where we're ensured quality medicine. It's ridiculous that I have to be a 50-year-old woman out here buying cannabis off the street to make my medicine."

In addition to the couple dozen people who urged lawmakers to pass HB 78, three representatives of socially conservative, Christian organizations were present to voice their opposition.

"The bill was squashed kind of curiously," Kennedy says. "Strangely, they're also paid lobbyists, so they have a comfortable relationship with the representatives. Whenever they spoke, they were given special treatment, so they didn't have to go through the first come, first serve process like everyone else.

"But they didn't have any science backing them up, as far as why they thought medical marijuana should not be available to patients. I think they're afraid that people are going to become addicted and die from overdosing and things like that. It's not based on any kind of research."

Tami Fitzgerald of N.C. Values Coalition was one of the dissenting voices. "Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is both unnecessary and a slippery slope," she said at the hearing. "It could open the door to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, which we do not want in this state."

This wasn't the first time a medical marijuana bill was killed without any real discussion. In 2013, Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam said, pretty infamously, that he and the other legislators on the House Rules Committee voted to give the bill an unfavorable report to "be done with it, so people could move on for the session." He also said lawmakers were being "harassed" by constituents with phone calls and emails.

DESPITE THE DISAPPOINTING outcome, advocates are continuing to move forward. And why shouldn't they? The data out there is compelling. In early April, for example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse admitted marijuana is capable of killing certain cancer cells.

Rep. Alexander, despite being shut down repeatedly, has another bill making its way through the N.C. House regarding medicinal marijuana. HB 317, if passed, would allow terminally ill patients to use cannabis without fear of repercussions. It's passed its first reading and has been referred to the Judiciary I Committee — the same committee that squashed HB 78.

Other supporters hope the state will consider further decriminalizing marijuana like Philadelphia did in 2014. Getting caught in North Carolina with a half to 1.5 ounce of marijuana is currently a Class I misdemeanor and will land a fine of $1,000 and one to 45 days in jail. In Philly, those caught with 30 grams or less — that's a little more than an ounce — will be cited and fined $25.

One issue advocates can move forward on, though, is tackling the social stigma surrounding marijuana; they believe dispelling negative stereotypes will help get more people talking about the issue, and thus increase numbers in favor of legalization.

"Even the people who are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use," Kennedy says, "probably a significant percentage of them also have this negative stereotype of lazy hippies that can't be motivated to contribute in a meaningful way.

"We feel that when people are talking about it and doing their research, they tend to fall on the side of, yes, the benefits outweigh the risks so substantially."

But coming out of the closet, so to speak, about one's own weed-related activities can have consequences. In March, the activist community took a hit when Todd Stimson, a vocal proponent of using marijuana medically, was convicted in Henderson County for drug trafficking and sentenced to between 25 and 39 months in prison. He ran the nonprofit Blue Ridge Medical Cannabis Research Corp. out of his home, and in 2013, police arrested him when they found dozens of marijuana plants there. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, Stimson said he had obtained a privilege license for the art of healing through the Department of Revenue.

Others who use cannabis to deal with their pain face obstacles in their health care. One 36-year-old Charlotte woman who was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure admitted to CL she uses weed, but can't be public about it. She's undergone numerous heart surgeries and had a defibrillator/pacemaker implanted. The surgeries left her with permanent nerve damage, and she smokes in nominal amounts using a vaporizer or a one-hitter for relief when the pain flares up in her left collarbone, where the defibrillators were implanted. But she technically isn't allowed to smoke while under the care of her Suboxone doctor. (Suboxone treats addiction to narcotic pain medication, which she slowly became dependent on without realizing it.)

If medical marijuana was legal, she says she "knows for a fact" she "would not have become addicted to narcotic pain medication."

Max Simon, the founder of Green Flower, which produced the "coming out green" video, was also once a closeted cannabis user. One day, he decided that it was crazy he couldn't talk about how much of a benefit cannabis had been to him. He came up with the idea to aggregate the stories of users to show how people's lives have changed because they have access to medical marijuana. And thus, Green Flower was born.

"It's an important story," Green Flower executive producer Stephanie Graziano says, "and I think more people need to hear it — not look at it as some kind of drug that takes you away from society but that it's actually a drug that infuses you back into being productive and creative and contributing."

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