Politics & Government

NC Rep. Kelly Alexander pushes for legalizing medical marijuana


State Rep. Kelly Alexander is nothing if not persistent.

For the past eight years and four legislative sessions, he has championed the legalization of medical marijuana in North Carolina. His bills have gone nowhere.

But now the Charlotte Democrat is trying again – and more confident than ever.

“It’s as inevitable as high tide every morning,” he said. “Even people opposed to it see which way the country is moving and the citizens of the state are moving.”

Since 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis, 22 other states have enacted such laws. And this week a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, introduced a measure to make it easier for more states to do the same.

In January, Public Policy Polling found 70 percent of North Carolinians believe doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana for medical use.

Alexander has 14 co-sponsors for House Bill 78. That’s three times as many as he has ever had. On March 19, supporters will rally at the legislature to tout the medical benefits of the drug.

But the measure still faces resistance.

“I would absolutely oppose it,” said GOP Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius. “You see the states with medical use, it bleeds into recreational use. It’s the first domino.”

And Republican Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County said other drugs are just as efficacious and less likely to be abused. “The medical part of it is a facade,” he said.

No Southern state has legalized medical marijuana. And in a Republican-controlled legislature, none of the bill’s co-sponsors are Republicans.

Alexander, 66, said it’s “unconscionable” to not allow the use of something that can alleviate suffering. Many people could benefit, he said, including his brother Alfred, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease of the central nervous system. Supporters say cannabis can reduce the pain and symptoms of MS.

“Because I’m in the funeral business, I come across people all the time who are suffering from chronic conditions where cannabis would have been helpful in alleviating pain and suffering,” said Alexander, whose family runs a Charlotte mortuary.

Despite certain opposition, Alexander could find some Republican allies.

Before Rep. Charles Jeter’s mother died of cancer last fall, she underwent chemotherapy and coped with the painful side effects of conventional medications.

“Even the doctors told us that marijuana would have been a better choice,” said Jeter, a Huntersville Republican. “I think her quality of life would have been better at the end if she’d had the right to do that.

“If (the bill) hits the floor I’d vote for it.”

Last year the General Assembly overwhelming passed a GOP-sponsored measure to create pilot projects allowing doctors to use oil from hemp plants to treat drug-resistant epilepsy. The bill was named “Hope 4 Haley and Friends” for a 5-year-old girl with intractable epilepsy, Haley Ward of Carteret County.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it became one of 11 states allowing the use of such cannabis products for limited medical reasons.

The federal measure introduced this week would reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug, like heroin, to a Schedule II drug like others with recognized medical uses.

Alexander said the Congressional action, together with North Carolina’s approval of hemp oil legislation, creates “a completely different atmosphere” for legalization.

Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, calls Alexander determined as well as persistent.

“That’s his personality,” said Ford. “He has opened my eyes to the medical benefits of it, but I’m still undecided.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059