A North Carolina legislative committee turned down on a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical purposes Wednesday afternoon, marking the most progress a legalization bill has made in the state.
Twenty people addressed the House Judiciary Committee over an emotional hour-long meeting in which relatives of injured military veterans said marijuana can be used to treat chronic pain, while speakers from Christian organizations refuted its medical benefits. For advocates, the debate itself should be considered a victory, said bill cosponsor Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg).
“This is huge that you’re even here today being allowed to speak,” Carney said at the hearing. “That’s a big step. That’s not a defeat.”
This is the second time a bill calling for the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes -- but not general legalization -- has gotten a hearing the North Carolina General Assembly. In 2013, four people were allowed to address the House Committee on Rules before a voice vote ended the discussions.
Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg), who sponsored the 2013 bill, this year got support from 14 other Democrats for House Bill 78. On Wednesday, advocates included spouses of injured military veterans, a man who said he represented farmers, and several people who said they use marijuana to treat chronic pain or symptoms from diseases.
Helen Monroe, an 84-year-old from Chatham County, said her previously active life of skiing and golfing was interrupted by worn out discs in her spine and arthritis. About two years ago, she started rubbing cannabis-infused ointment on her back, knees and ankles, she said.
“Now I don’t ride the carts at the grocery store,” Monroe said. “I can walk around. I sleep better.”
Opponents of the bill included the Rev. Mark Creech, director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, who questioned research on the medical marijuana use, citing an American Psychiatric Association statement that there is no scientific evidence to show it can be used to treat psychiatric disorders. Additionally, he said, marijuana is a drug that could easily lead to abuse.
Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston) did not vote on the bill, but expressed concern: “I think it's a gateway to having marijuana be more prevalent than we want it to be in my district."
Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union County), who owns an engineering company, said he opposed the bill because it could represent a risk for job-site safety and could infringe on employers’ right to a drug-free work environment.
“Obviously, the stories are heart wrenching, and I couldn't even begin to put myself into the situations that people find themselves in,” Arp said. “But that's a different issue that we have to balance with the policies of drugs in the state.”
Advocates approached lawmakers when Wednesday’s hearing ended. One man struck Arp, who had motioned to defeat the bill, in the back, according to Arp and several onlookers. Police detained the man and released him without filing charges, and Arp said he received and accepted an apology.
“I was very shocked by it,” Arp said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been struck, but I understand the passion.”