Understanding the Legislative Process in North Carolina

image - general assembly -house

Are you familiar with the legislative process in North Carolina?  NORML of North Carolina can help you wade through all the political mumbo jumbo and spell it out clearly for you! The following blog details how a bill is introduced and turn into law. This process is what every NC NORML member, supporter, or activist needs to know to get the job done. Without knowledge of this process, we have no direction, no battle plan. States such as California, Washington, and Colorado all used the ‘ballot by initiative’ process, which we DO NOT have here in NC. This alone is perhaps our biggest hurdle. The initiative process allows citizens to write a proposed ordinance or law, then collect a certain percentage of signatures of registered voters. Should they receive enough signatures in the allotted time frame, the proposal will appear on the ballot for every citizen to decide, rather than the state legislature. Again, we do not have this process statewide so we cannot bypass the state legislature. There are select cities that allow it, but medical marijuana or full legalization will not be made into North Carolina law in this matter.

We often have supporters asking, sometimes even complaining, “why don’t we have medical marijuana yet in NC? How come NC NORML hasn’t done anything?”  Well, here is the most important key to our success, so learn it by heart, and contact your legislators! Everything we do here in NC, including educating the public, is basically to push bills through this process. Raising funds, buying ad space, conducting statewide polls, doing rallies, running the web pages, putting together legislative educational materials, etc are all for the sole purpose of representing each of you to the legislature for marijuana reform bills to be passed. Please take the time to read this and understand it. If you have further questions, you know how to reach us!

NC Legislative Process:

Step 1 – Drafting
The first step involves writing the bill (a proposed law). Anyone can draft a bill, but it can only be introduced by an elected State Representative or State Senator. If you involve one of these legislators in the drafting of the bill, they will be much more likely to sponsor and introduce the bill. The more sponsors we have supporting a bill before it is introduced, the better.

Step 2 – Introduction
Introduction of a bill is simply presenting it to the rest of the General Assembly (the state House and Senate). The bill first must get turned in to the Principal Clerk, where it is given a number. The next day, during the regularly scheduled “Introduction of Bills and Resolutions” time, the bill number, title, and name of the bill’s sponsor(s) get read aloud. The bill typically gets referred to a committee immediately after, by the Speaker of the House (House bills) or President Pro Tempore (Senate bills).

Step 3 – Committees
The various committees a bill will go through depend on the nature of the bill. Committees are groups of Representatives (in the House) or groups of Senators (in the Senate) that review a bill, offer recommendations relating to specific items within it, and may even suggest amendments be made to the proposed bill (any member not in the committee may also propose a change). For instance, a medical marijuana bill is very likely to go through the Health and Human Services committee, but not the Public Utilities committee. It is common for bills to be referred to several committees.

Last legislative session (2011-2012), the medical marijuana and decriminalization bills got sent to the committee on House Rules, Calendar, and Operations, where they were never let out or considered further. This is often seen as a power move, called “killing a bill.” Last year North Carolina’s marijuana bills died because of this. This problem was largely due to the committee chairman, who was against the bills. The chairman is essentially the person in charge of the committee, and allows, or disallows, other committee members the opportunity to present bills, approve amendments, etc. On the fortunate side, this man, Stephen LaRoque, has been removed from the Legislature, and is now being tried for several felonies relating to embezzlement and fraud!

The committee period is also one of the opportune times for the public to weigh in on the bill. If allowed by the committee, the public may present testimony, advice, or scientific facts to the legislators in that committee. This is one of the big days we all need to be prepared for!

Step 4 – Consideration
The bill is first considered by the house it was introduced in (House or Senate). The medical marijuana and decriminalization bills were introduced in the House last session. The House Chair, who in essence is the leader of the entire House chosen by the majority party, will recognize the committee chairman that is recommending the bill be passed. The bill is then explained, and arguments for or against are heard. Depending on the bill, there may be many advocates or opponents, or the bill may easily pass. To be passed, the bill is voted on by all members of the house it was introduced in, and if they approve by majority vote, the bill is past it’s second reading, but is read again and must pass it’s third reading to be moved to the next house (there may be more debate). Once in the opposite house, in this case the Senate, it is read, sent to committee(s), and upon approval is debated and voted on during the 2nd and 3rd readings. For example, if the medical bill was discussed and passed in the House, it would then move to the Senate, where it must repeat the process there.

Here’s a breakdown:
1st reading – the bill is introduced;
2nd reading – after the bill makes it through committee so changes are known by all members of the house, then voted on;
3rd reading – after the first vote, sometimes taking place on a different day than the 2nd reading.
After the 3rd reading, if the vote is in majority supporting the bill, it moves to the next house.

Step 5 – Concurrence
Since the bill has been sent to two different houses, where they can each make various changes to the bill in committee(s), the two bills must be reconciled so they read the same. For example, if the bill was passed in the House with the phrase, “10 ounces of marijuana may be possessed by a medical patient,” but is passed with the phrase, “12 ounces of marijuana may be possessed by a medical patient,” in the Senate, then the Senate must ask the House if they approve of the change in terms. If the House agrees, then the bill is ready to be signed as law. If the House disagrees, then members from both the House and Senate are appointed to a conference committee. If they can agree upon a change, say 11 ounces, then they present it to both houses to vote on the recommended change to the text. If they agree, then the bill is ready to be signed into law, but if they disagree, then the bill is defeated.

Step 6 – Enrollment, Ratification, and Publication
Enrollment is the preparation of a new copy of the bill, with all passed amendments. The presiding officer from each house signs this copy. Now, the bill has been ratified. Once ratified, the Governor has 10 days to act on the bill to approve or veto it, or in other words approve or refuse the bill, in the case of the latter, the bill will be sent back to the General Assembly for an additional vote (it must receive a 3/5 approval to override the Governor’s veto). If the Governor takes no action, the bill automatically becomes law. If the Governor approves and signs the bill, the bill will no longer be a bill, and becomes official North Carolina law!

So what should YOU do?
This entire process is why we constantly urge you to vote in local elections to get marijuana supporting legislators elected, contact your legislators OFTEN (by phone, e-mail, letters, or even better in person), and show up on legislative days to support marijuana reform bills. There are literally thousands of bills that get introduced each legislative session, so if we aren’t vocal about our right to use marijuana, they will simply toss it aside and work on another bill instead. We have an uphill battle with the manner NC government is set up, so present facts and supportive statements to your legislators about marijuana!

And of course, the best way to get involved is to join and donate to NORML.

Here is the link to the NC General Assembly, get familiar with it!!


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