Modest medical marijuana bill comes up short, highlights the unfairness of NC’s healthcare system

Modest medical marijuana bill comes up short, highlights the unfairness of NC’s healthcare system

Medical marijuana. (Getty Images/ Sean Gallup)

State senators took a small, but positive step last week when they advanced Senate Bill 711 – a proposal to legalize medical cannabis/marijuana. As numerous witnesses – including military veterans struggling with PTSD and other service-related illnesses, as well as others battling the ravages of cancer and chemotherapy – made clear in often emotional testimony during a pair of public hearings, it’s absurd that suffering North Carolinians are denied an effective therapy that’s legal in the overwhelming majority of states.

Lawmakers of both parties deserve some credit for raising this long-neglected subject.

That said, it’s also clear that the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Even if one accepts the highly dubious proposition that marijuana should only be legal for medical purposes, the bill as drafted is much too narrow.

The list of approved medical conditions that would render a person eligible excludes a host of serious conditions – including, perhaps most notably, mental illnesses like depression and opioid addiction.

What’s more, the fact that the bill would limit the total number of distribution centers for the entire state to 40 (one for every 260,000+ residents) is clearly inadequate. This assures that many people will have to traverse long distances to obtain the help they need.

But, of course, the bigger issue here is the very idea of limiting access to those fortunate enough to have a physician who can diagnose their condition and write a prescription.

As health experts and advocates have pointed out repeatedly in recent years, a huge number of North Carolinians lack access to health care because they lack health insurance. And this means that while an individual may be suffering from any number of the conditions specified in the bill as qualifying a person for a cannabis prescription, they still won’t be able to obtain it legally.

As is already the case with other essential medicines in our state’s segregated and unjust health care system, people of means – a group that’s disproportionately white, suburban, comfortable, and native born – will get what they need. Meanwhile, people of low incomes and without insurance – a group that’s disproportionately comprised of people of color and immigrants living in rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods – won’t.

And this hard truth reflects yet another injustice that is highlighted by the proposal: the discriminatory way in which current marijuana prohibition laws are enforced. As Charlotte Resing of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in a 2019 essay entitled “Marijuana Legalization is a Racial Justice issue,” “Marijuana has been a key driver of mass criminalization in this country and hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom are Black or Latinx, have their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest each year.”

In 2020, the ACLU reported that Black Americans are three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, despite similar usage rates.

Senate Bill 711 won’t change this.

Indeed, it’s easy to foresee that even as friends and family members of people like Senator Kathy Harrington (a white Republican from Gaston County who spoke with force and emotion in last week’s committee meeting about her husband’s battle with cancer)  get the marijuana they need, low-income people of color throughout the state will continue to find themselves arrested and jailed for possessing the exact same substance in the exact same quantities.

And this fact, in turn, highlights the glaring truth that it long ago became absurd that anyone in the United States is facing criminal prosecution, much less spending time in jail, for possessing marijuana.

While marijuana can pose health and safety concerns when abused and should remain firmly on the radar of public health officials, prohibition has been, and remains, an unmitigated disaster. This is why a fast-growing group of U.S. states comprising roughly half the nation’s total population have now fully legalized it for both medical and recreational purposes and, in many instances, are moving rapidly to expunge past criminal convictions.

As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam stated in April while signing the law that made marijuana legal for all purposes just a few miles up the road as of July 1, “What this really means is that people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives. We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”

The bottom line: It’s long past time to fully legalize and regulate marijuana for all adults in North Carolina and clear the criminal records of those with past arrests and convictions. Lawmakers should expand Senate Bill 711 to do precisely that.