Advocates regroup after medical marijuana dies again in committee | News Feature | Indy Week
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Advocates regroup after medical marijuana dies again in committee 

The disconnect couldn't be more apparent: 69 percent of North Carolinians believe doctors should be able to prescribe medical marijuana, according to a January Public Policy Polling survey.

Yet last week House Bill 78, which would have legalized pot for those suffering from chronic conditions, died a quick, unceremonious death in a House Judiciary Committee.

It was the second time in three years that lawmakers killed a medical marijuana initiative. In 2013 the House Rules Committee listened to four people speak before cutting off discussion and reporting the bill out unfavorably, a legislative death sentence.

In that light, the Judiciary Committee's unanimous rejection seems like progress. There was at least a real debate—more than a dozen people testified—even if the result was a fait accompli. At least that's how advocates spun it.

"I've been working on this since I was elected in 2004," says State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, an HB 78 co-sponsor. "I've seen it evolve. That gives me some hope. It's kind of like gay marriage: We're going to get there."

Still, as she points out, even after listening to veterans who suffered from chronic pain, lawmakers—even the committee's Democrats—voted to deny them the relief they sought, arguing that doing so would open the door to Colorado-style legalization.

"Some people speculate that [marijuana is] a gateway drug," says State Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake Democrat on the committee. "I don't want my vote to be taken as 'He's OK with marijuana.'"

Asked what would change his mind, Jackson replies, "I need to hear from researchers or from physicians from the Duke Medical Center."

"We're kinda in a tough spot right now," says Jon Kennedy, board chair for the state chapter of NORML. Given the polling, he says, "We like to think we're doing our part," but the General Assembly is stuck in an anachronistic mindset: "'Drugs are bad. Marijuana is a drug. Marijuana is bad.' It's like their minds shut off and they haven't put a lot of thought into it."

The key, advocates say, is lining up Republican support, which they've not done effectively thus far. They'll also have to convince lawmakers that the bill they passed last year, which allows patients with severe epilepsy to use oil derived from a non-euphoric strain of pot, wasn't enough.

And they just may have to wait. Support for marijuana reform is generational. In the PPP poll, 78 percent of those ages 18 to 30 supported medical marijuana; half of them backed outright legalization.

"We need the ones who behind the scenes say they support it to support it," says David Hargitt Sr., head of the North Carolina chapter of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. "Moving forward, there are some lawmakers that are not going to support this. I personally think it's going to take education, unfortunately—to get those on the fence to see the science, the research."

House Bill 317—which would permit individuals under hospice care to receive marijuana prescriptions—is still alive, although it's now in the hands of the same committee that shut down HB 78.

Jackson says he's open-minded, but wants experts to show him the evidence. "You can read anything you want on the Internet."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Quit harshing our mellow"

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