The 420 caucus: Lawmakers seek to change drug laws, build support for legalization

Casey Toth/

During the new legislative session’s first day last week, Rep. Kelly Alexander rose on the House floor to remind other legislators that the “famous 420 caucus” was planning to meet.

And while that was news to some, Alexander told The News & Observer on Tuesday the group has been active for at least two legislative sessions and is also called the cannabis caucus.

A caucus is an informal meeting of lawmakers. The idea of this 420 caucus, which met Tuesday for the first time this session, is to bring together members who are interested in reforming the state’s drug laws and getting some kind of cannabis legislation onto the books, said Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat who is serving as its chair.

Other members include Sen. Paul Lowe, a Democrat from Winston-Salem, who is vice chair, and Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Democrat from Charlotte, Alexander said. He did not provide a full list of members but said apart from Lowe and Cunningham there were about five or six others at the meeting Tuesday and that he expected the group to grow.

The significance of the number 420 in weed culture reportedly dates to 1971, when a group of high school students in Marin County, California, used it as a code for marijuana because they met at 4:20 p.m. to smoke.

All the lawmakers Alexander named are Democrats, who are in the minority in the legislature.

Is marijuana legalization on the horizon?

A top Republican lawmaker, Sen. Bill Rabon, filed a bill Wednesday titled the “Compassionate Care Act,” which would allow medical, but not recreational, marijuana use statewide, as previously reported by The News & Observer.

Ailments and illnesses covered include cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, PTSD and a terminal illness if the patient’s remaining life expectancy is less than six months.

The caucus Tuesday “had some very good discussions” around the bill, Alexander said.

Last year, the proposal passed the Senate with bipartisan support but was never allowed a vote in the House.

Rabon is a Republican from Brunswick County and chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. Other primary sponsors of the bill were Lowe and Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican from Wilmington.

Is the medical marijuana bill likely to pass? What are the sticking points?

Alexander said discussion in Tuesday’s meeting largely centered around ways to improve the Compassionate Care Act bill so that it would “successfully navigate both the House and the Senate this go around,” he said.

Alexander is optimistic about the bill’s chances this year.

“I think this is the most favorable session that we’ve had in the last 12 years dealing with this particular subject,” Alexander said.

Last year, the bill “was bottled up” in the House, Alexander said.

“This time, it appears that the leadership in the House is not going to bottle it up,” Alexander said, “… so the fight this time is to improve the bill” and “to try to keep things out of the bill that would make it difficult to pass both houses.”

Asked about the prospects in the House last week, House Speaker Tim Moore said there was “some support” for a bill if it involved doctors and tight controls, as previously reported by The N&O.

“We have polled our caucus,” he said. “We still have a few members that need to respond to those polls. So what I would say is that there’s, there’s some support and we’ll see. I’d say that there’s a chance it may happen.”

Asked last week about the 420 caucus and the announcement by Alexander, Moore cracked a joke.

“I don’t know how many people that clapped and stood up had their bags searched when they left the floor,” he said at an N.C. Insider forum.

What does the 420 caucus hope to achieve?

Alexander said the caucus is talking about the involvement of North Carolina farmers, who can grow the cannabis plant, as well as vertical integration, in which businesses own every stage of their supply chain. For dispensaries, this may mean control of cultivation, manufacturing, sales and more.

Alexander also said the caucus is discussing the role that out-of-state interests may play in the state should marijuana be legalized medically.

The Compassionate Care Act’s current version would require that an applicant for a medical cannabis supplies license must have “been a State resident for at least two years and will be the majority owner of each medical cannabis center and production facility the applicant proposes to operate.”

It also requires first-year suppliers to pay a $50,000 nonrefundable license fee and $5,000 for each production facility or medical cannabis center the applicant proposes to operate under the license. For renewal, suppliers must pay at least $10,000, plus $500 per new production facility and $100 for each existing facility.

Alexander said the group talked about setting a price that is not so high as to create a black market, in which off-the-book sellers low-ball prices.

“We want to reinforce the fact that as a prescription medication, there’s no state sales tax on it,” he said. The current bill provides that there would be no sales tax on cannabis products sold by medical cannabis centers.

Tax rates for medical marijuana vary dramatically from state to state, with some states imposing minimal taxes or none at all.

Alexander also said the caucus wanted to create language in the bill saying that if marijuana is taken off a federal list of controlled substances, health insurers in the state would have to put it on their formularies, that is, the list of drugs covered by a prescription drug plan or another insurance plan.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lists marijuana as a Schedule I substance, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule I drugs are heroin and LSD.

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