The waning hopes for marijuana legalization

December 19, 2022


  • There was movement on limited medical marijuana in North Carolina’s legislature this year, but GOP opposition killed it
  • Democratic bills for full legalization were killed in committee without a hearing
  • Voters are overwhelmingly in favor of legalization


In the legislative session that ended earlier this year, there was a major breakthrough on marijuana legalization in North Carolina. But sadly, those raised hopes were soon scuttled as the year’s session came to a close. A big question on many minds now is: with a new legislature in the new year, is there any hope for legalization in North Carolina’s future?

The Compassionate Care Act

In 2022, a bill (SB 711) that would have partially legalized marijuana for a small range of medical uses passed the State Senate. The “Compassionate Care Act” was a very narrowly-focused bill. It would not have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and even in its medical applications, it was still very conservative. Its primary sponsor, Republican State Senator Bill Rabon, the chairman of the Senate’s powerful Rules Committee, boasted that his bill would have been the “strictest in the nation” in its scope. In fact, the word “legalization” itself was forbidden in negotiations, as it was deemed too toxic to Republican supporters.

Senator Rabon credited his own (illegal) use of marijuana during his recovery from cancer as the main reason for his support of the issue. Republican Senate Majority Leader Kathy Harrington, effectively the 2nd-ranking Republican in the State Senate, also credited personal (and illegal) use of marijuana during her husband’s treatment for cancer as the reason for her change of heart on the issue.

With powerful support inside the Republican Senate caucus, the bill managed – after extensive amendments – to win enough GOP support that it was allowed to come to a floor vote. As expected, Democrats were almost unanimously in favor, and the bill thus passed the Senate by a wide margin.

(It’s important to note that the Compassionate Care Act was not the only bill filed to legalize marijuana in North Carolina’s legislature. HB 576, the “Marijuana Justice and Reinvestment Act,” was a bill filed in both the House and Senate and sponsored by most of the Democratic caucus. Their bill would’ve fully legalized marijuana, taxed it to fund community development, and expunged the records of those convicted of marijuana-related crimes. Unfortunately, Republican leadership sent the bill to committee and killed it without a hearing.)

Will the House change its mind?

Though it passed the State Senate, Compassionate Care Act came to a crashing halt in the State House. Republican leaders in the House ensured the bill never made it out of committee.

To be fair, the legislature’s “short session” in 2022 was a case study in failed legislative (and caucus) leadership. Republican leaders were unable to move even parts of their own agenda, like NC’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and seemed utterly flummoxed by what to do with an issue like medical marijuana. They punted on the bill to be re-introduced and decided again in 2023.

What to look for in 2023-2024

So what are the prospects for change in the 2023-2024 legislature?

The same forces in the House Republican Caucus that blocked movement on medical marijuana in 2022 will still be in place in 2023. The issue lacks a committed, visible Republican House champion, like Rabon in the Senate, who is interested in spending political capital on it. If we see one emerge publicly, that would be a very positive sign. Yet if one exists, they haven’t spoken up.

There is a fair amount of lobbying money being spent on medical marijuana – mainly from marijuana companies, but interestingly, not from the traditional agricultural interests (ex. Farm Bureau). Yet lobbying dollars so far have not been enough to get many bills over the line. The failure of online gambling is a perfect recent example of a bill with tremendous financial backing in the form of lobbyist pressure that ultimately failed.

Democrats overwhelmingly support various forms of legalization – just like most North Carolinians. North Carolina voters themselves overwhelmingly support liberalizing marijuana laws, without significant partisan differences:

Widespread public support for marijuana legalization was one likely factor behind President Biden's decision in October to issue blanket pardons to everyone convicted of federal marijuana possession charges. Even in Virginia, under Democratic leadership in 2021, became the 16th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, starting in 2024. (Not a single Republican lawmaker supported the measure.)

It's obvious that liberalization of marijuana laws is sweeping the nation, and it's only a matter of time before that tide crests over the wall of partisan Republican opposition in the North Carolina legislature. Time will tell if 2023 is the year, though. Watch for visible Republican support in the State House - if it emerges, a very narrow medical marijuana bill might just have a shot. And if that support does not materialize... maybe don't hold your breath.

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