On February 20, the Republican-controlled North Carolina House Rules Committee killed H.B. 84, a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana, stating their desire to “stem the wave of phone calls and emails” from constituents voicing support for the issue. Tweet it: TweetHouse Rules Committee Vice Chairman, Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) , “We it to be done with it, so people could move on for the session,” further stating that lawmakers were being “harassed” with phone calls and emails from constituents who support the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana.
It seems overwhelming public support for an issue is now considered harassment by N.C. lawmakers, permitting them to forgo their duties of representation and kill a bill simply because they no longer wish to listen to their constituents wishes.
A Public Policy Poll administered in January found that out of 603 constituents polled in N.C, 58 percent support the taxing and regulation of medical marijuana. Elon University also released a study on March 6 which found that seventy-six percent of the 891 N.C. voters surveyed believe doctors should be allowed to prescribe medical marijuana for medical conditions such as cancer. Tweet the poll: Tweet
“It was a rigged hearing,” stated Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), who was a co-sponsor of the bill. “It was not intended to go anywhere and it was not intended to have a process of what you are thinking about.”
After the committee listened to public comments for a mere 20 minutes, in which only one person -- Jere Royall, with the North Carolina Family Policy Council -- voiced opposition, the bill was given an unfavorable report.Per House rules, when a bill is given an unfavorable report, “the contents of that bill or the principal provisions of its subject matter shall not be considered in any other measure originating in the Senate or originating thereafter in the House.”
On the topic of harassment, Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg), the primary sponsor of the bill, believes that unexpected and greater than usual public support in the form of emails and phone calls could have been misinterpreted by top Republican lawmakers on the committee.
“I think some of the people who allege harassment may have also fallen into the mindset of not being inclined to support the measure in the first place,” said Alexander. “If you are not inclined to support something and all of a sudden you see a public poll saying the measure is possible and you also have people who politely want to have meetings with you to discuss their positions and their views -- you get it at a volume that you didn’t think was possible – I could see how you could convert that into harassment.”
The N.C. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), helped to organize a legislative rally on February 12 at the N.C. General Assembly, which drew about 450 supporters in favor of medical marijuana legalization. Tweet at @NCNORML: Tweet
A week later, N.C. NORML began a phone and email campaign, encouraging members and supporters to contact their representatives.
“Considering that N.C. NORML has over 7,000 followers on Facebook and a reach of well over 100,000 nationwide, it's entirely possible that a small percentage of those people were less than polite when contacting representatives,” said N.C. chapter Secretary Jon Kennedy.
“I haven't personally heard of one person who was confrontational or disrespectful when contacting representatives, but if Rep. Stam said there were a few people who were rude, I would say that I'm not surprised. Some people suffering from certain debilitating diseases can't get by in life without medical marijuana. The pharmaceuticals that they have been prescribed damage their body and put them in a world that disconnects them from reality, which they dislike. They have found that marijuana, especially through vaporizing, helps.”
Respectful or not in their communication, it's not the job of a United States representative to base their decisions on whether they feel a constituent was polite; it's their job to fight for what the people they represent want and need.
“In my world you can't refuse to advance legislation because people aren't socially polished,” Kennedy said. Tweet quote: Tweet
Despite the many studies available which have found marijuana to have medicinal value, including a U.S. government-owned patent explaining the useful neuroprotectant and antioxidant properties of cannabinoids, N.C. representatives refuse to take up the issue.
Even the federal government is still issuing four to nine ounces of marijuana a month to four remaining patients who are apart of the federally-run Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program that started in 1976.
Rep. Brandon feels that in order for medical marijuana to gain traction in N.C., there needs be a study bill introduced to examine its effects:
“You have this ignorance because there has never been a bill in the N.C. General Assembly designed to study the effects of marijuana,” he said.
According to Brandon, an issue carries a lot more weight when it's based on the recommendation of the study bill:
“I think study committees are useless, but that's they way they work around here. I've learned about these committees and I've been against them, but I understand that they are necessary for a bill to have more weight. The chances that you get sponsors from both parties, who come from the study committee, greatly increase.”
“We have a thousand bills that come across our desks, so you can't research everything that comes through your committee and you can't be an expert on everything," he added. "We do rely on expert testimony. All the bills that come across my desk -- I would be lying to you if I said that I knew about every single one of them.”
Despite the set backs, H.B. 84 proved slightly more successful than previous marijuana legislation.
Each time a bill is introduced into the House, the Speaker of the House, Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) determines which committee it goes to.
“I've heard that it's bad if a bill gets sent to rules committee,” said Brandon. “It's what happens when people don't want the bill to get done. Rules is like the dead committee.”
The speaker may not have wanted the bill to advance this go around. However, this is the first time that there was a committee hearing where the public was given a chance to speak.
The rules committee voted through a voice vote, which is not recorded. In the history of North Carolina, no medical marijuana bill has progressed far enough to reach either chambers in the Legislature where it would receive a recorded vote.
Rep. Kelly Alexander, the author of H.B. 84, said he plans on attempting to revise and remove the bill from the unfavorable calender by invoking Rule 37 from the House Rules Book, which states:
“A bill may be removed from the unfavorable calender upon motion carried by two-thirds vote. A motion to remove a bill from the unfavorable calender is debatable.”
According to H.B. 84, the taxation and regulation of medical marijuana would generate approximately $250 million per year in revenue for the state within four years of implementation.
Editor's note: N.C. Rep. Paul Stam was contacted for comment. His secretary informed the author that he does not schedule in-person or telephone meetings with his constituents in Wake County.