The bill lays out the development of a medical cannabis supply system and aims to create a program administered by the UNC system called the North Carolina Cannabis Research Program. The program would conduct studies to determine the safety and efficacy of cannabis as medical treatment and then develop guidelines for the appropriate physician administration and patient use of medical cannabis.
Justin Strekal, the political director of the marijuana advocacy group NORML, said the bill is comprehensive and includes a long list of ailments that physicians could prescribe marijuana to treat.
“Some other states have gone a much more conservative approach in terms of what they will consider marijuana to be a treatment for,” he said.
Strekal said there are states that only legalize cannabidiol, or CBD — oil derived from a strain of marijuana without psychoactive effects.
“The CBD-only is really great at treating the kids with refractory epilepsy, but as far as the much more holistic approach that can be used to treat a whole host of ailments, it’s important to have access to the whole plant,” he said. “So, as far as medical marijuana bills go, we’re very happy with what’s being introduced in North Carolina.”
But the federal administration and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been increasingly critical of states legalizing marijuana in recent months.
“I, as you know, am dubious about marijuana,” he said in February. “States can pass whatever laws they choose, but I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold on every corner grocery store.”
Whether Sessions and the new administration will actually enforce the federal status of cannabis remains unclear.
Strekal said data suggests legalization of medical marijuana could reduce opioid dependency in the state — where drug overdose is a growing cause of accidental death.
A study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center found the annual number of deaths from prescription drug overdose is 25 percent lower in states that have legalized medical marijuana.
“The data is very conclusive that marijuana can be a pathway out of addiction rather a gateway in,” Strekal said.
But Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America Foundation Inc., said she doesn’t think the proliferation of marijuana reduces drug-related deaths and overdoses.
“Is there a state that has reduced their opioid problem and legalized marijuana? Yeah, I’m sure there is,” she said. “But there’s no proof that marijuana is the cause of that.”
In a speech to Virginia law enforcement in March, Sessions said marijuana proliferation will not staunch the effects of the opioid crisis.
“I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful,” Sessions said.
But criticisms of medical marijuana are outdated and not based on scientific fact, Strekal said.
“To maintain the same classification of marijuana in the realm of heroin is absolutely absurd,” he said. “It’s unfounded, and it’s unfathomable to deny patients access to a substance that will alleviate their suffering.”