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DOES NORTH CAROLINA HAVE A BUDDING INTEREST IN MARIJUANA?

Ganja. Marijuana. Weed. Herb. Medicine.

A rose by any other name is still a rose, as is a medicine by any other name.

Medical marijuana has been the topic of discussion in the United States for many years, with momentum of the movement growing exponentially on the heels of states like Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon moving to decriminalize the cannabis plant for legal use for adults ages 21 and over. In some 19 other states, including the District of Columbia, cannabis is regulated for medical use requiring a prescription from a doctor to obtain for personal use.

House Bill 78, a bill that was filed in the North Carolina General Assembly on February 11, has been deemed the North Carolina Medical Cannabis Act.

If it passed, which it did not despite vocal efforts from war veterans, parents of sick children who believe cannabis can help, and victims of traumatic accidents, the believers in the movement to allow medical marijuana in North Carolina would’ve been able to breath a sigh of relief, perhaps even exhaling that sigh in a cloud of smoke. As it stands, North Carolina’s lawmakers don’t seem all that enthusiastic about allowing the plant to become available to the general public just yet. A similar bill, House Bill 1380, was introduced in 2009, but, like HB 78, failed to pass.

But why not? At the March 25 General Assembly in Raleigh, people from all walks of life spoke on the bill as it pertains to medical benefits, social effects, and even the attacking of the values in American homes.

Greensboro’s News & Record quoted Tami Fitzgerald of the North Carolina Values Coalition, an organization whose mission is to “seek to lead the charge to preserve and promote faith, family and freedom in North Carolina and create a favorable political climate for these core values.”

Fitzgerald said, “Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is both unnecessary and a slippery slope … it could open the door to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, which we do not want in this state.”

Who is this “we” that she is speaking of, considering there were almost, if not just as many people in attendance who supported the passing of the bill, as well as a rally in the days leading up to the meeting in full support of HB78?

Military veteran Perry Parks was one of the outspoken advocates for the bill, expressing discontent that if it is known that cannabis can treat brain and traumatic injury, why should veterans not be allowed to partake?

One of the advantages, at least for some veterans, is to replace the prescription narcotics prescribed to them by doctors with medical marijuana. The alternative medicine not only benefits the physical ailments, but when regulated properly, can be a much more cost effective approach to sedation and therapy.

But you should also know that House Bill 1220, otherwise known as the “Epilepsy Alternative Treatment Act,” or the “Hope 4 Haley and Friends Bill” was signed by Governor Pat McCrory in July of 2014. This bill allows for the treatment of intractable epilepsy by means of cannabidiol, a hemp oil extract from the marijuana plant. The bill passed unanimously, although North Carolina is technically not recognized as a medical marijuana state. The few patients that are eligible for cannabidiol (CBD) count less than 20. Patients are required to obtain the cannabidiol from a research facility, and are also required to register with the state of North Carolina as a medical marijuana patient.

Under HB1220, patients must meet a certain number of regulations in order to be eligible. To start, a caregiver, as defined by the bill, must either be the “parent, legal guardian, or custodian of a person diagnosed with intractable epilepsy,” must be at least 18 years of age, must be a resident of North Carolina, and must provide the Department of Health and Human Services with a statement signed by the neurologist who is conducting the pilot study. The cost to become a caregiver must not exceed $50. The neurologist must be affiliated with the neurology department at either The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, Duke University, or Wake Forest University.

Patients, that is those persons diagnosed with intractable epilepsy, are then given the hemp extract cannabidiol, which is characterized in the bill as “composed of less than three-tenths of one percent tetrahydocannabidiol (THC) by weight.” To put that in context, some of the marijuana available in this day and age can contain as much as 20 percent THC by weight, or even more depending on the grow operation responsible for the product.

Extracts from cannabis have become increasingly popular in the past few years with the recent changes in legislation regarding how marijuana can be imbibed. When THC is extracted through one of several methods, the resin left behind is a waxy, oily substance.

CannLabs, a research facility based out of Colorado and Connecticut, outlines several ways with which to extract cannabinoids from marijuana flowers. Whether or not these research facilities are using these methods is up to them, and will most likely be released in a report concluding the pilot study.

Depending on the extraction process, which ranges from dry sieves (flower agitated by screens to produce a concentrated substance of THC), CO2 (carbon dioxide acts as a solvent when heated or cooled and pushed through cannabis flowers), and butane extraction (butane is pushed through the cannabis flower leaving behind a highly potent cannabinoid), the leftover oil can be used for smoking, vaporizing, or cooking. Vaporizing, or “dabbing” has become a very popular way to smoke. There are also vape pens in production, and offered where in states where medicinal marijuana is available, that provide the same experience without the harsh effects on the respiratory system.

Other ways of using cannabis include eating it by way of an assortment of edible products currently in manufacturing – it’s opened up a whole new clientele for chefs and bakers in states where applicable.

Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote of her edibles experience in a column titled “Don’t Harsh Our Mellow, Dude,” in which she described the experience as being filled with paranoia and an unquenchable thirst.

There are also a plethora of tinctures (liquid forms that are dropped on or under the tongue,) and pills that are either synthesized forms or natural.

Or, just roll a joint. But aside from HB1220, which is very limiting in its reach for the sea of potential patients who could benefit from medical marijuana, there are a number of groups fighting to push bills like it, which was the case for HB78 and HB1380 back in 2009.

Opponents of the bill, like Tami Fitzgerald, argue that because there has been no scientific evidence of medical marijuana helping anyone, it cannot be stated that marijuana is a medical necessity. But scientific evidence is being delivered on a daily basis from pilot studies such as those conducted under the supervision of HB1220, as well as those in other states.

So, again, why is medical marijuana still illegal in North Carolina? How is decriminalizing a plant that grows naturally going to drastically affect the values of families in this state – a state that is proud of its NASCAR heritage, and the fact that said heritage was born out of running moonshine? Graham County remains dry, the only one of its kind in the state, and that stubbornness could be lending itself to the idea that medical marijuana, and eventually recreational marijuana, is a bad thing.

On the flipside of all this, or at least the plant and botanical flipside of things, is the world of hemp. Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants, but hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, often less than .3 percent by weight, whereas marijuana can produce anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent by weight.

Currently, it is illegal to grow hemp in the United States, although some states are beginning to allow the regulated cultivation and research of the plant. Of the 22 states that now have laws pertaining to industrial hemp manufacturing, only 13 have enacted statutes to allow the establishment of the commercial industrial hemp programs. This, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, also lends itself to the remaining seven states that have passed laws outlining programs for research-based hemp operations.

American Hemp, LLC., an organization located in Winston-Salem, is on the forefront of the hemp industry. Owners, and brothers, Xavier and Patrique Veille have learned how to navigate the sketchy waters of law as they apply to hemp in the United States, and are creating a business that works within the scope of the law.

“Hemp is illegal to grow in the United States, but it’s legal to import,” Patrique said in a phone interview last year. “We are the manufacturing stronghold in the world, yet when you are trying to import a bulk agriculture commodity that has a lower value before it’s upgraded by manufacturers, it makes it more expensive to mass market.”

American Hemp primarily focused its efforts on manufacturing hemp from the fiber, rather than the grain. This process, which was made illegal as part of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, can essentially turn the fiber into a multitude of products. American Hemp, for instance, manufactures products such as “hempcrete,” an alternative to a lot of the building materials used in residential and commercial construction. American Hemp also manufactures the plant for beddings for farm animals and personal pets.

Patrique attributes the Marijuana Tax of 1937 to an invention called a “decorticator.” That machine strips bark from a stalk in order to further the manufacturing process, and at the time of its invention, “cut down the man-hours from 200-300 to 4-6 for the processing of fibers,” he said. Couple this with an article that ran in Popular Mechanics calling hemp the new “billion dollar crop,” and you’ve got a recipe for a product that could have changed manufacturing for the better part of the 20 th century. The Tax Act killed this, although it was temporarily lifted around World War II with the implementation of tax stamps that were given to farmers to grow hemp for manufacturing.

“Five years ago, we found a gap in the supply chain for the material, so we focused on getting these products in people’s hands so the market could grow,” Patrique said. “We have been focusing on creating a business model for processing; When farmers grow the material and harvest then bail it, we would be the guys who process that off the field and then give it to the clients.”

“If you look at the cultivation, at least the fiber, the fiber grows in 90 days, and if you’re growing for grain it takes 120 days,” Patrique said. He also pointed out that hemp doesn’t require fungicides and insecticides, which drastically cuts down on the chemicals used for growing. At the time of harvest, more than 50 percent of the crop goes back into the soil, making it a great rotational crop, which also cuts down on the need for government subsidies.

Patrique also commented on the fact that other crops such as corn, or wheat, receive government subsidies. He finds this ridiculous.

“The fact that you’re using a food source to make biofuel … I think we’ll look back on this time and question what we were doing,” he said.

American Hemp isn’t the only company focusing efforts on hemp manufacturing, although they might be the only local one focusing all off its efforts.

According to Hemp.org, in 2008, Hanesbrands began looking into a company based out of Oregon called Naturally Advanced. Naturally Advanced was working with a product called Crailar Hemp, which was purchased by Hanesbrands in 2010. Between the findings of Naturally Advanced and Hanesbrands, it was revealed that Crailar was a better fiber to use for the production of clothing because of its ability to look, fit, dye and wash similar to cotton, and the material was actually stronger, shrunk less and held dye better than cotton.

“In the end, people only care if the price is right,” Patrique said. “If the price isn’t where it needs to be then people don’t want to touch it. As the prices start to go down with production in the United States, it’s going to sweep through a lot of these industries.”

So, why is marijuana and hemp illegal? Marijuana editor for The Cannabist, an extension of the Denver Post daily newspaper that was implemented around the same time marijuana became legally recreational for adults over 21 in Colorado, published a report outlining some of the key numbers from Colorado in the first year of recreational marijuana sales. His findings concluded that Colorado’s annual demand for marijuana was somewhere in the vicinity of 130 metric tons, that Colorado’s medical marijuana sales totaled more than $325 million, and that the state raked in more than $60 million in taxes, licenses and fees from the sale of medical and recreational marijuana. Colorado raised so much money, in fact, that the tax refunds for Colorado citizens were boosted because of the unprecedented amount.

So what could medical marijuana do for North Carolina? To start, according to the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, there were roughly 736,000 veterans residing in North Carolina. If only a fraction – a mere fraction – of those veterans suffer from PTSD, or some other physical ailment based on their active-duty during their time served in the armed forces, well, a little marijuana goes a long way.

In 2010, The American Civil Liberties Union found that North Carolina spent upwards of $55 million enforcing marijuana possession laws, which if you can remember is just around $5 million shy of what Colorado earned in taxes, licensing and fees. North Carolina spent what Colorado made. In that same year, North Carolina law enforcement made 20,983 arrests related to marijuana possession, accounting for more than 50 percent of the total drug arrests that year in the state.

Right now, the laws are pretty clear about what happens if you get busted with some marijuana. In North Carolina, anything below 1.5 ounces is a misdemeanor charge carrying up to 45 days (it’s significantly less if the amount is below .5 ounces) of incarceration and a maximum of $1,000 fine. Anything ranging from 1.5 ounces to 10 pounds carries a felony, 3-8 months incarceration, and the same fine. Possession of paraphernalia is a misdemeanor, up to 45 days in jail (although it’s a felony if you give paraphernalia to anyone under the age of three) and up to $1,000 fine. The charges jump up pretty quick when you move into the serious weight, like if you get busted with 10,000 pounds and you’re planning on selling it, or you’re growing it, you’re going to jail for minimum 14 years and paying up to $200,000 fine. For growing a plant. That grows on its own. Without your help.

So, tell me again how “we” don’t want medical marijuana because it’s a “slippery slope.” That’s what I thought. Until then, be safe. And roll tight.

If you’re interested in working toward reforming marijuana laws, reach out to your local NORML chapter. Find information at NORML.org. If you’re interested in fighting marijuana legalization, reach out to NCValues.org. There are many ways to be active in the conversation surrounding medical marijuana reform, and it’s up to the people to make the decision for what they allow in their state. !

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