RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – On the first day bills could be filed in this session of the North Carolina General Assembly, two senators and a House member from the Piedmont Triad seized the moment to help offer significant legislation.

State Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Winston-Salem) is a principal sponsor of a bipartisan bill that was the first filed in this session: Senate Bill 3, which is called the “Compassionate Care Act” – as was a similar bill a year ago – seeks the legalization of medical marijuana

Then state Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) and state Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Randolph) each sponsored a bill that is less likely to pass but no less of a headline piece of legislation: an effort to codify the abortion rights allowed under Roe v. Wade and later reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Casey.

SB 3 is sponsored by Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), the chair of the Senate Rules and Operations Committee, Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Lowe.

Sen. Bill Rabon is the author of the medical marijuana bill. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP, File)

Rabon wrote the bill that last year was passed by the Senate on a vote of 36-7 but never got a vote in the House, where Speaker Tim Moore had indicated perhaps consideration in the long session of 2023.

Like its precursor, this bill identifies 15 specific or general medical maladies for which cannabis is known to provide relief, such as cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, PTSD and Parkinson’s disease. The bill also specifies how cannabis would be prescribed and what physicians must do. Patients must be at least 21.

The NC Department of Health & Human Services would administer the requirements and processes, including a registry of physicians and a patient ID card. There also would be licensed suppliers and specifications for the types of cannabis.

“Senator Rabon has been the driving force on the medical marijuana bill that passed the Senate last time and did not pass the House,” Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) told The Carolina Journal. “I think time will help, and we’ll see whether or not this session is the right time. I think it’s the right thing for us to do. My thought is that the bill that passed the Senate last time was well constructed and addressed a lot of the concerns that people have.”

Concept has support

State Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Winston-Salem)

Lowe didn’t respond immediately to a query from WGHP, and he has not posted on social media any pronouncement of why he signed on to this bill. Not all Democrats voted for the bill last summer, but Lowe did.

Most candidates for the House who responded to a query from WGHP before November’s election expressed support for medical marijuana. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett), the House majority whip, said he believed “doctors should have the ability to prescribe cannabis for medical use.”

The Senate has a supermajority of Republican control, so basically anything the GOP wants to pass should be a good possibility. The GOP is a vote short of that authority in the House.

A WGHP/The Hill/Emerson College poll last spring found that 68% of registered voters support the legalization of marijuana, and 19% oppose it.

Abortion bills

Rep. Robert Reives (D-Randolph)
State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro)

Garrett, recently elected as chair of the Guilford County legislative delegation, is one of 17 sponsors of Senate Bill 19 that includes Lowe and Garrett’s seatmate in the Senate, Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro). Principal sponsors are Sens. Dan Blue (D-Wake), Sydney Batch (D-Wake) and Rachel Hunt (D-Mecklenburg).

HB 19, filed by Reives and two representatives from Mecklenburg County and one from Wake, is identical. Among its 28 cosponsors are Reps. Amber Baker (D-Winston-Salem), Kanika Brown (D-Forsyth), Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) and Renee Price (D-Caswell).

Reives in a release on Jan. 31 announced that all Democrats in the state Senate and House had signed on as cosponsors of their respective bills. “We understand that important decisions about health care should happen in a doctor’s office, not a legislator’s office,” he said in that release.

These bills use as their foundation the earlier Supreme Court decisions and say the state may not “restrict the ability of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability, unless such a termination is necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman.”

They are similar to a bill that passed the U.S. House last summer. A bipartisan bill introduced into the U.S. Senate has not gained traction, but President Joe Biden said last fall that codifying abortion was his top priority.

Garrett said on a social media post on Wednesday evening that he is “proud to co-sponsor this important bill to defend North Carolinians’ freedoms and keep politicians out of our healthcare decisions.”

Not much chance

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, left) and Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden). (AP File Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

But these bills have almost no chance of getting even discussion in the General Assembly. Since the Supreme Court in June ended protections under Roe v. Wade and said abortion law was a matter for state law, both Berger and Moore have discussed a path to tighten the state’s current, 20-week limit on abortions, perhaps to 13 weeks.

Moore even changed rules in the House to offer a chance for a vote to override a veto that would be expected by Gov. Roy Cooper. Lt. Gov Mark Robinson, who heads the Senate and is a likely candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, last week called for an almost total ban on abortion in the state.

“Indeed it’s a long shot, but reproductive freedom and the ability for women and families to make their own health care choices is top of mind for North Carolinians,” Garrett wrote in a text message response to a query from WGHP. “Since most Republican candidates dodged this question during the campaign, I think it’s important for people to know where their elected leaders stand.

“I am proud that our Senate Democratic caucus is united in trusting women and keeping politicians from dictating health care decisions for the women and families of our state.” 

Other bills

Numerous other pieces of legislation have been filed for consideration, and, like medical marijuana, some of them will be familiar, including Medicaid expansion and sports gambling, both of which passed the Senate last year but not the House.

There also is the matter of how the legislature will respond to the most recent court rulings in the Leandro school funding case.

What lawmakers might do with redistricting and voter ID could hinge on how the state Supreme Court reacts to petitions filed last week by Moore to overturn rulings from December that scuttled the General Assembly’s prior efforts.

Lawmakers almost certainly will take a new approach to voter ID, and redistricting – especially for Congress, where the U.S. Supreme Court this year will announce a ruling in case that has sought to suggest the General Assembly has total control of maps – likely will get keen attention.

To that point, the Democrats again filed House Bill 9, the Fair Maps Act, which would require an independent, nonpartisan commission to assign voting districts, taking power from partisan legislators. Hardister was one of more than 50 sponsors of a similar bill filed in 2019.

“There will likely be at least a half a dozen, dozen things that nobody today can predict,” Berger told The News & Observer.