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Legalize it!: N.C. House Bill 577, aka the medical cannabis act

N.C. legislator rolls another number for the road — the road to medical marijuana, that is



Take a look at the current N.C. General Assembly legislative calendar and you'll find one thing missing: discussion of House Bill 577 — the medical cannabis act.

The bill seeks to create a state law that would protect people who use marijuana for treatment of conditions including HIV, cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig's disease and fibromyalgia.

The bill would also provide guidelines for who can possess, grow and sell marijuana as well as give doctors the power to legally discuss and prescribe marijuana to patients with covered illnesses.

But hold on, stoners: The bill is not a measure to make marijuana legal for everyone. (That you'll have to take up with Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who told Jon Stewart recently that he fears "the war on drugs more than I fear the drugs themselves.") The N.C. bill is about medical, not recreational use of pot, a distinction often lost in the legalization debate, says the bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander of Mecklenburg County.

Alexander so strongly believes that discussion about the bill needs to happen that he started an online petition ( with a goal of getting 7,500 signatures to present to the General Assembly. At press time, 6,885 people had signed the petition.

Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have laws that make medical marijuana legal, but no Southern state does. Alexander says that's a shame and a slap in the face to patients across North Carolina who need marijuana to ease their conditions. "Nobody disputes that medical cannabis helps people who have appetite issues, specifically coming out of chemotherapy. There are between 20 and 30 different ailments that medical cannabis would have a positive effect on, and one of the things the bill proposes that we do is conduct some additional research," Alexander says.

That extra research, he adds, would set parameters for patients to get the proper dosage of the drug. "Right now, there is very little objective research that is permitted," Alexander says.

This is the second time the General Assembly has been faced with a medical marijuana bill. The first bill, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Nick Mackey (Mecklenburg) and Earl Jones (Guilford), died in committee in the 2010 session. Both Mackey and Jones lost their primaries in 2009. Just like the first time, it looks as if the current bill also will die without any discussion on the floor.

Why are politicians in Raleigh afraid to talk about legalizing marijuana for medical use? Alexander says there is a lack of courage on the part of some politicians, who in private discussions offer their support of the bill. "You have to understand, this is not a Cheech and Chong movie. This is about advanced medical science," says Alexander.

Perry Parks, president of the N.C. Cannabis Patient Network — a group that pushes for legalization of marijuana for the relief of chronically ill patients — says people need to start wrapping their heads around the distinction between recreational and medical use of cannabis. "There is a big difference. One has the connotation of letting drug use just go wild with teenagers and everybody else," says Parks. "Medical marijuana is totally different. It's under a doctor's supervision, and if a doctor cannot tell you what he thinks works best for you, then we are hurting."

The medical community is fractured on the issue. For example, the American Society of Addiction Medicine has come out publicly against legalization. And then there are the reports of the benefits of weed showing up on major medical websites and then suddenly disappearing. In March, according to The Washington Times, a study pointing out the benefits of marijuana appeared on the website briefly before "the approving words were stricken."

The N.C. Medical Society, a group representing the political interests of health care providers, had been against the first bill in this state. But spokesman Mike Edwards says the group now supports the development of "well-controlled research of the use of marijuana and related cannabinoids in patients."

Rep. Rodney Moore, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, says he thinks that while there are more important issues for the state legislature to focus on, he agrees that it is time to take off the blinders. "We at least need to have a serious conversation about medial cannabis," says Moore, who has signed Alexander's petition. "We at least need to bring that conversation out. We can't stick our heads in the sand anymore about this. We already have other forms of alternative medicine. If this is going to alleviate someone's pain, then we need to have a debate about it and let everyone decide one way or another."

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Republican from Matthews, says he doesn't have a position on the bill and hasn't spoken to Alexander about it.

One elected official who is staunchly opposed to the bill is Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Republican from Kinston. He says until the medical community fully supports the medicinal use of marijuana, he can't support a bill to legalize the drug. He also doesn't expect the current bill to become law. "It didn't pass either chamber in the long session, so it's ineligible for the short session," LaRoque says.

If you ask Parks, LaRoque is the reason why medical groups like the North Carolina Nurse's Association removed a statement from its website supporting medical marijuana. Parks filed a complaint against LaRoque four months ago, accusing him of using political influence on the Nurse's Association.

Alexander says the GOP-controlled General Assembly kept the bill tied up in committee during the last session, and he's working to get the bill considered in the short session. So far, he has about a dozen signatures in favor of it, and he plans to send a letter to all of the house members seeking more support.

"Unfortunately, there are some folks out there," Alexander says, "that when you bring up this subject, their ability to process information shuts down."

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