Politics & Government

How a random encounter in a diner led to an NC medical marijuana bill

Hyong Yi, Catherine Zenga and their family.
Hyong Yi, Catherine Zenga and their family.

It began with a random meeting at a west Charlotte diner, where Hyong Yi and his kids ran into state Sen. Joel Ford.

Yi, Charlotte’s director of organizational innovation, told Ford in 2015 about his wife’s death from ovarian cancer a few months before. Her pain was so intense that regular narcotics couldn’t control it, he told him. The couple lamented that medical marijuana wasn’t an option.

Last week Ford introduced a measure to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina. It’s called “The Catherine A. Zanga Medical Marijuana Bill” after Yi’s late wife.

“For me this is where the rubber meets the road when you’re in a diner and your neighbor comes and tells you about their personal experience,” Ford said Monday. “I’ve never been more moved.”

Senate Bill 579 would legalize marijuana use for cancer and dozens of other illnesses. It’s not the only such measure introduced this year.

Rep. Kelly Alexander, like Ford a Charlotte Democrat, has introduced HB 185. Charlotte Democrats Becky Carney and Rodney Moore are co-sponsors.

Across the country, 28 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana or cannabis. In January, a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that patients treated with cannabis or derivatives saw “a significant reduction in pain symptoms.”

But such bills have never gone far in North Carolina. Alexander has introduced similar bills for five consecutive sessions. Though polls have shown support as high as 70 percent, his bills have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled House.

Ford, who’s also running for mayor of Charlotte, said he’s not deterred.

“I’m not going to let the current environment stop me from introducing legislation that’s going to help somebody,” he said.

Hyong Yi explains why he and his children decided to hand out 100 love notes in honor of his late wife, Catherine.

Zanga, a former assistant district attorney, suffered from pain so intense that her doctor had to have special training on the powerful narcotic that was used to control it. She died in November 2014.

A year later, Yi and their two children, Anna and Alex, stopped people on Tryon Street and handed out 100 loves notes to his wife. “My hope is that as we share these love notes with random people on the sidewalk, that they’ll take a moment to reflect on the love in their life,” Yi told a reporter at the time.

The notes were later published as a book, “100 Love Notes.”

“My perspective is of a husband watching his wife dying of cancer and in constant pain,” said Yi. “We ought to give people suffering as many options as possible to improve their quality of life for as long as they have it.”