The North Carolina General Assembly's chief advocate for legalizing medical marijuana in the state revealed publicly on Tuesday how he smoked pot over 20 years ago to withstand the discomforts of chemotherapy during a fight with cancer.

Sen. Bill Rabon of Brunswick County has been working for years on a measure that lays out a structure for patients with serious and terminal illnesses to lawfully obtain cannabis and smoke or consume it. Legislative opponents of the idea — fewer than in previous years but still a significant bloc — argue that marijuana can lead to medical harm, only masks symptoms, and would lead to making recreational use lawful.

Rabon had described himself as a colon cancer survivor but had been reticent on many details, particularly whether he had used marijuana, until pitching his bill in the House Health Committee three months after it passed the full Senate. The veterinarian recalled taking a few puffs at home after days of tremendous nausea at work to get through to the next day.

“I’ve told it many, many times privately, and I have no shame in saying, you know, ‘this is what you will do in order to stay alive,’” Rabon told reporters after the meeting by the committee, which didn't vote on the measure Tuesday.

The bill would allow physicians to certify in writing that the health benefits of using marijuana by a patient outweigh the risks. Patients with over a dozen conditions could qualify — such as cancer, epilepsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder — as well as those with terminal illnesses or who are receiving hospice care. A proposed state commission would award licenses to 10 entities that would grow cannabis, process it and sell it — each with up to eight sales centers.

Rabon, now 71, said he was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at age 48. After surgery, Rabon's oncologist said that he had 18 months to live. Rabon was dissatisfied with chemotherapy treatment after three months. Rabon recalled how the oncologist said a more aggressive form of treatment would make him “real sick," and told him he needed "to get some good marijuana.”

Rabon said he didn't do drugs but was worried and desperate. He said he told his local police chief and sheriff that “I’m going to have to buy drugs illegally to stay alive.” He never had to — Rabon said pot would show up in his mailbox as needed.

Having access to the tokes at home is “the only reason I’m alive today,” he told the committee. “I know that tens of thousands of people in the state would benefit just as I did” if the medical marijuana bill became law, he added.

David Evans, the head of North Carolinians Against Legalizing Marijuana, said he's had cancer three times and sympathizes with anyone with a serious illness. But "we do not decide medicine in the United States by anecdote or by stories. We decide it based on science,” Evans told the committee. “All of these conditions have very weak evidence that marijuana may be helpful.”

Qualified patients who are at least 21 and their caregivers would have to receive registration cards from the state to buy cannabis at a center. Licensees would have to send 10% of their monthly revenues to the state.

A nearly identified medical marijuana bill from Rabon passed the Senate in June 2022 but stalled in the House. The current year's Senate bill would have to clear three House committees before reaching the chamber floor in the final weeks of this year's chief legislative work session. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper already has expressed interest in authorizing medical pot if a final bill comes to his desk.

House Health Committee members had several questions on Tuesday about how the qualifying illnesses are chosen and whether cannabis distribution could be limited to non-smoking forms only. Others expressed interest in advancing the measure.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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