By Alex Milstein – firstname.lastname@example.org – Contributor
With a rare motion, the rules committee shut down House Bill 1380 in 2013, the first bill proposing the use of medical marijuana in North Carolina.
“The issue was a non-starter as far as the leadership of both Democratic and the Republican parties were concerned,” said Ben Scales, a criminal defense attorney in Asheville who authored the bill. “We kept getting introduced sooner in the cycle. 1380 became 577 the next session and then became 84 the session after that. By the time the third one came around, it was generating so much popular support that the Republican leadership shut it down by issuing an unfavorable ruling out of the rules committee, which never happens.”
A newly-introduced bill gets assigned to committees, but the leadership decides where it goes, Scales said.
“If it’s a Republican leadership on a Republican bill it gets consideration. If it’s a Democrat bill, it gets shoved around and thrown in the trash. And usually what they do is send the bill to the rules committee and let it sit there – forever. It just sits there and dies when the session dies. But the people, the supporters of medical marijuana around the state, wouldn’t let that happen, and our network of people let the phone number of the people on the rules committee be known so they could call and say, ‘Hey, put this bill to a vote,’ and they did.”
Scales said they put it to a voice vote, and the people who were there said it sounded good judging by the loudness of the people’s voices.
“But then he banged the gavel down and said it was disapproved. Now, what the effect of that was, is that the issue cannot come up until the next session in 2015.”
Scales said Bill 1380 looked like it would fail from the beginning due to its poor support.
“I sort of knew these bills wouldn’t pass. We knew that we didn’t have a lobbying team. When the Democrats were in power for the first two times we proposed it, if we would have had some money to counteract the pharmaceutical lobby, we might have had some success. The pharmaceutical lobby was, from what I understand, quietly and without any public records telling the people to whom they donate that medical cannabis is dead.
“All the records of who gives to who is public, and you can see that the rules committee was stacked with people who were getting money from the pharmaceutical industries, including one of them who gets money from Abbott laboratories who distribute the synthetic marijuana pill Marinol,” Scales said.
Medical marijuana currently seems off limits, but Scales now works with others in an effort to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment to essentially repeal the prohibition.
“When I retired from the military in 2003 at age 60, I was diagnosed with PTSD and chronic pain, and so someone told me that cannabis would help,” said Perry Parks, a highly decorated 30-year retired military officer and president of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network. “Now, I wasn’t scared to try cannabis because I was retired and wouldn’t be drug tested, but what I found was the truth about the medical benefits. When I went to learn more about it, I went to a conference for doctors and nurses, and I was shocked at what they knew.”
The U.S. government defines Schedule 1 drugs as drugs with no medical benefits. Marijuana, federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug, has no known medical uses, according to the federal government, even though they own a patent on CBD, the main medical chemical in marijuana.
“If you go to the federal government’s patent on CBD as a neuroprotectant, that happened in 2003. That was 11 years ago that they knew that it helped the brain, but they denied the use. And so whenever I found out for my own personal reasons that it worked for me, and that it not only worked, but it worked extremely well, I found myself with a problem so incredible that I had to find a way to make people aware of this.”
Parks, 71, said his calling lies in clearing up misinformation about marijuana, and he started to get activated and involved with House Bill 1380 to clarify this misinformation.
“They were actually laughing at us at the time because of our sponsors, who were not top notch. And so we tried the second time with House Bill 577. It was only three digits so we thought we had made a lot of progress; 577 went to the rules committee and was never heard from again. So, for House Bill 84, we started early in 2013 to get our bill in.”
Parks said N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander came in and took over in support for the bill, as he introduced the last two bills as well, and everyone took extra efforts to get this bill attention.
“Of course it went to the rules committee and looked like it would be stuck just like 577, so we started a letter writing campaign to let the legislators know that this is bulls**t,” Parks said. “So Paul Stam schedules a hearing with less than 24 hours notice for the rules committee and we contacted everyone that afternoon and showed up to the hearing with a medical doctor, a nurse practitioner and a cancer survivor who all testified in favor of the bill.”
Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican member of the N.C. General Assembly, refused to speak on the topic of House Bill 1380.
“Then we had one preacher stand up in opposition and at the end of his comments, which were actually cut short, Stam said out of the blue, ‘I recommend we give it an unfavorable,’ and with six Democrats to 14 Republicans, the motion passed and the meeting was adjourned.”
Parks said he felt shocked when the bill shut down so quickly because a real discussion barely happened.
After the dismissal of House Bill 84, Stam asked those in favor of marijuana legalization to stop harassing him about the subject.
“When ABC News asked Stam why he killed it, he said they killed it to get rid of it. He said people were bugging him and writing emails, and they killed it to get on with business. When you give a bill an unfavorable ruling, that is a rarely used motion, extremely rare, because it’s kind of like stomping on somebody and saying, ‘Look, do not bring this up again. We have told you no.’ It’s kind of like if you go up to your mother and ask if you can date John, and she says no. So then you go to your father and ask if you can date John, and he says yes, so then you’ve got a conflict between your mother and father.”
Barbara Galloway, a counselor and substance abuse prevention educator at UNC Asheville, said she supports medical marijuana.
“I think there is plenty of research that clearly indicates that medical marijuana can be beneficial for certain conditions,” Galloway said. “From that standpoint, it should definitely be legalized. If there’s something that can serve as a medication that can help people then absolutely. If medical marijuana was legalized there would be increased regulation, increased quality control, increased awareness of dosages and maybe we would have a clearer idea of what we are talking about.”
Galloway said the medical marijuana issue gets too tangled up with full legalization.
“I see it as two very different things. Medical marijuana is cultivated for a specific purpose – pain relief or nausea relief – so if someone has chronic pain or any of those condition I would hope that they are using it more for the physical benefits than the high. When anything goes from recreational to habitual use and into dependence I get concerned.”
Galloway said recreational use all depends on intention, moderation, awareness and the individual.
Doctors in North Carolina hide behind the law when asked to prescribe Marinol, the synthetic marijuana pill, because they don’t know all of it’s effects, Galloway said.
“My hunch is that they would be hesitant. It seems to me like there a lot more to know and a lot more to have in place before legalization actually happens. Questions like how do you screen patients, what conditions are treated with it, when is it indicated, hows it going to be dispensed – it seems pretty complicated.”
James “Ziggie” McLemore, a local cancer patient and co-founder of the Green Bus Tour for Marijuana Legalization, survived stage three lung cancer by using marijuana and, after the arrest of his main dealer, he said he turned to other sources.
“It’s still a major pain in my ass to acquire the plant material and the actual flower itself and any part of the plant that is saving my life to this day,” McLemore said. “I literally had to turn to the black market and deal with Mexican brick bud for a while until I found other avenues.”
McLemore said cannabis saved his life and he plans to use it as long as he lives.
“I sometimes jokingly say they told the wrong redneck he was going to die. But anytime I can help anyone or spread the word and educate anyone about what this plant is capable of doing, I do it.”