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Raleigh, N.C. — It’s been nearly 21 years since Hillsborough resident Blake Tedder nearly lost his life.
His father was flying a single-engine plane until it stalled over the Colorado Rockies. When the plane crashed into the mountains, it caught fire and the two men had more than one-third of their bodies burned.
After going into an induced coma, having a dozen skin graft surgeries and a year of intensive physical therapy, Tedder found a treatment option that could help reduce ongoing pain: cannabis.
While he’s been able to legally get marijuana prescriptions filled in Colorado and California, the same opportunity isn’t available to him in North Carolina.
A bill advanced by state lawmakers this month seeks to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. But it excludes many of those who suffer from chronic pain.The measure passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support, but it has since stalled in the House and is unlikely to be taken up this year, according to the chamber’s leader.
Even if Senate Bill 711 were approved and signed into law, Tedder and other marijuana legalization advocates fear too many North Carolinians with serious health conditions would be excluded.
“It’s just a shame that it’s not necessarily going to be available to people like me,” Tedder said.
Marijuana legalization meets roadblock, frustration from advocates
Included in the bill are more than a dozen qualifying medical conditions, but chronic pain and glaucoma aren’t among them due to concerns from lawmakers of limited research.
Tedder believes he and others could still qualify for a 30-day marijuana prescription under the measure’s provision that labels those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying debilitating condition. But the proposal leaves many others out of luck, including residents without a doctor and those with one who won’t affirm their medical condition.
Chris Suttle, a Chapel Hill resident and cannabis legalization activist who has lobbied lawmakers, thinks there are enough Democrats and Republicans in the House who would get behind the measure. But the bill’s fate could come down to one man.
Shortly after the medical marijuana bill cleared the Senate, GOP House Speaker Tim Moore said he opposes the legislation and doesn’t plan to consider it as the legislative session winds down this month. He also declined to say whether his chamber would hold a vote in the future.
“I want to see where our folks are on it. I really do,” Moore said. “That one has just kind of been thrown down, and I don’t see an appetite to take that up in the shorter session. As far as the long session, I won’t say one way or the other.”
Suttle, who thinks she’d qualify for medical marijuana because he has PTSD, is trying to ramp up political pressure on lawmakers to get the proposal to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
“While I’d love to see it passed in the House right now and have this done and on the governor’s desk by July, I know that’s not going to be the reality,” Suttle said. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to stop.”
Possible stepping stone to legalized pot
A WRAL News online survey found strong support among registered North Carolina voters for legalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. Nearly three in four respondents said marijuana should be legalized for medical use, while 57%, including a plurality of registered Republicans, supported recreational legalization.
The poll conducted from April 6 to 10 reported a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points when respondents were asked about legalization for medical purposes and 2.7 percentage points when asked about legalization for recreational purposes.
In a statement, Cooper spokesman Jordan Monaghan said the governor “supports efforts to make medical marijuana available.” Cooper is currently assessing a different bill on his desk that could legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does so first.
Senate Bill 448 has many caveats, though.
The FDA must first approve use of the prescription drug. After that, the Drug Enforcement Administration must make the proper change to the federal controlled substance schedules. A North Carolina commission would then have to not object to the change.
Critics argue the plan could create a backdoor to marijuana legalization, while proponents say state officials would retain their authority to oppose FDA-approved treatments containing marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC, the chemical compound in the marijuana plant that produces the drug’s high.
In the meantime, the push for more sweeping legalization continues.
Alternative to opioids?
If the Senate’s legalization bill becomes law, an 11-member commission filled mostly with Cooper appointees could add to the list of debilitating medical conditions, which currently include PTSD, cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Seven of the 11 commissioners would be selected by Cooper, while Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger would each nominate two to be approved by the legislature. The appointees would include at least three doctors, one registered cannabis cardholder and a parent of a child with a qualifying medical condition.
Suttle said the legalization effort has taken on heightened importance as hundreds of residents die each year from opioids. He believes pot could reduce the death toll, though research into the association between legalized medical marijuana and opioid deaths is limited and conflicting.
Instead of chronic pain being added as a qualifying medical condition, he wants a so-called opioid reduction therapy carveout.
“As long as you have a qualifying condition that would require you to get some type of opioid medication, you should be given the right to choose cannabis instead,” Suttle said. “It is much less deadly. It is much less harmful on the other vital organs compared to opioids.”
Indeed, studies have shown marijuana is far less harmful than opioids and other substances, including nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. While there is very little risk of death from using marijuana alone, more than 3,900 North Carolinians died from opioid overdoses last year, a 26% increase from 2020.
Cannabis users have about a 9% likelihood of becoming addicted, according to a 2011 study published by the National Library of Medicine. A 2015 analysis from the journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain of patients with chronic pain who were treated with opioids found that misuse averaged between 21% and 29% and addiction averaged between 8% and 12%.
In 2019, an estimated 10.1 million Americans at least 12 years of age misused opioids in the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s far greater than the 4 million Americans in 2016 who had a marijuana use disorder in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Having been someone that almost succumbed to being an opioid addict, I took one and the world that it created aside from pain is something that still haunts me to this day,” Suttle said. “It was a world that I never want to go back into because it was too perfect.”