Medical Marijuana's Conservative Champion
Powerful Senate Rules Committee Chair Bill Rabon made it his mission to legalize medical marijuana after a grueling fight with cancer. A decade after his election, he’s finally poised to make good on that promise // Photos by Eamon Queeney
Bill Rabon remembers the kitchen. That little area off the main room, where nurses make cocktails of drugs so toxic that their time on the shift is limited in order to reduce exposure. Drugs that, by drip or injection, are designed to kill your cells as you sit next to your fellow patients with little more than a styrofoam cup of ice chips to tackle the nausea.
Last month, a powerful lineup of speakers assembled in the North Carolina Senate’s Judiciary Committee to speak about what Senate Bill 711 might change for them—how the benefits of medical marijuana could change their pain-management procedures, improve their quality of life, and potentially prevent their friends and colleagues from taking their own lives. Many of the speakers were veterans working through PTSD and chronic pain.
But for Rabon, the 70-year-old face and force behind the current push to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina, the experience that motivates him is cancer. More than 20 years ago, colon cancer almost took his life, and has since killed too many of those he knew and loved.
“Just personally, I’ve waited long enough,” Rabon, a Republican state senator from Brunswick County, told The Assembly. “Every session we wait, every day we wait, someone’s gonna suffer that could benefit.”
On June 30, SB 711, also known as the NC Compassionate Care Act, passed the first of four Senate committees. The proposed bill is one of the strictest and most narrowly tailored in the country, and a long review process awaits it.
But if the proposal passes this session, which many observers think is likely, it will be almost entirely because of the ripples from a terminal diagnosis given to a veterinarian turned powerful senator—and a pledge he made to his physician after he beat the odds.
His oncologist started out bluntly.
“I want you to know, I’m going to do everything I can,” Rabon recalled him saying. “We’ll go through this together. But it’s okay to die.”
Rabon was born in Southeastern North Carolina, in rural Columbus County. Degrees from N.C. State and the University of Georgia led him to neighboring Brunswick County, where his family had deep roots and where he became the county’s first practicing veterinarian.
He carved out a role making farm calls, treating “hogs and dogs” and everything in between. He treated wildlife too, from sea turtles and pelicans, to hedgehogs and swans.
“I always wanted to either be a vet or a pediatrician,” he told a local magazine in 2019. “A person who loves one usually loves the other, since both make your heart warm.”
When the cancer diagnosis came, it was only because Rabon forced it to come.
In Winnabow, 15 miles west of Wilmington, Rabon’s family had a small tobacco farm. Its fields were now fallow, but Rabon and his brother—who joined Bill’s practice as a veterinarian—still cared for the land.
On an afternoon in 1999, Rabon began to move hundred-pound bags of corn from his truck bed. He picked up the first bag and felt it fall through his arms. It was confirmation that the pain and extreme discomfort he had felt for four years was not, as doctors were telling him, just a signal that he needed to slow down his life.
He left the corn strewn across the ground and drove to see a close friend and doctor. “I've got cancer,” Rabon remembers saying. “I’m going to die. And no one will believe me.” They ordered a battery of tests that evening and soon diagnosed the then-48-year-old with Stage Three colon cancer.
Today, Rabon’s scans are cancer-free. “I donated 16 inches of my colon and 20-some lymph nodes to science,” he recalled—and went through six months of intensive chemotherapy. But he survived.
Senator Bill Rabon's Office, July 14, 2021 // Photos by Eamon Queeney
Still, seared into his mind is the pain of that process, particularly for all those he met along the way.
“You’re sitting next to someone here, here, here, here, all around the room,” said Rabon, describing chemotherapy. “And you strike up conversations. Some of them just started, some are mid-term ... and you see those people suffering, because you’re suffering.
“And you know, some of them aren’t gonna be there when you come back for your next treatment. And they know it too. But they’re trying. They’re doing their best.”
Even in 1999, when Rabon was first diagnosed with cancer, there was broad awareness that medical cannabis could help alleviate some of the worst side effects of chemotherapy.
Since then, the scientific evidence of medical benefits has grown but rigorous studies are still lacking, in part because the DEA still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, limiting formal research. Anecdotal evidence, however, has reached a fever pitch.
Medical marijuana, argued Rabon, improves quality of life for folks in pain. “In my opinion, it will not keep you on earth a day longer, but every day you’re here is a better day.”
Asked whether he himself used medical marijuana during his treatment, Rabon demurred.
“I’m not going to go into the details of my medical treatment,” he said. “What I can tell you is, for some people, cannabis is the only product that relieves the symptoms of the poison injected into your body, and that relief can be immediate.”
Even skeptics of legalization largely acknowledge that medical benefits likely exist. Asked what has influenced his opinion during this debate, Senator Paul Newton, a Republican from Cabarrus County who has expressed some public hesitation about SB 711, pointed to individual testimonies.
“It’s the personal stories of people who have actually experienced relief through medical marijuana,” said Newton. “And who am I to say that's not true? They don’t have any motivation to lie to us about that; Senator Rabon ... has no reason to lie about that. I mean, he’s being absolutely honest with us.”
Nationally, the political argument appears to be over, becoming more of a question of “when” rather than “if.” This week, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced national legislation to decriminalize marijuana. Thirty-six states have legalized medical use of marijuana, and 18 states have legalized recreational marijuana.
Public sentiment is changing, including in North Carolina. A January, 2021 poll from Elon University found 73 percent of North Carolinians support the legalization of medical marijuana, and 54 percent support legalization of recreational marijuana.
But North Carolina’s legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, has held firm. Democratic lawmakers were once again slated to introduce decriminalization and legalization legislation, but progress seemed unlikely. Then in April, Senate Bill 711 was introduced, with its lead sponsor the powerful Rules Committee Chair Bill Rabon. The state took notice, beginning a slow but methodical committee process notable for its openness and bipartisan approach in a legislature that often fights along party lines.
Rabon was elected in 2010, as part of a wave of new Republicans that flipped both chambers and led to significant rule changes across the General Assembly.
One of the new hubs of power in the Senate, which has long had a reputation as both the slightly more disciplined and more conservative chamber, was the Rules Committee. Previously, the committee was a place—as lobbyist Brian Lewis described it on the Do Politics Better podcast—where bills went to die or get fast-tracked. Anything in between went straight to the other committees.
Under Rabon, the Rules Committee grew its remit. Bills started there, went to committees, then ended back in Rules before they reached the Senate floor. The committee is made up of senior lawmakers from both parties and became a clearinghouse and final stop for every bill.
Rabon quipped to Lewis and his co-host Skye David that he’s known as “Dr. No.” On his watch, lots of bills never make it out of the Rules committee.
That powerful role is part of why political observers took notice when he filed SB 711 as a lead sponsor, along with Republican Senator Michael Lee and Democratic Senator Paul Lowe.
“We’ve been talking about this off and on for several years,” said Lowe, who told The Assembly that past efforts by Democrats to move the needle on legalization and decriminalization struggled to gain bipartisan traction. Rabon approached him about working on what would become SB 711 prior to the session’s start in January, 2021.
But for Rabon, the work really started much earlier. When he first ran for office in 2010, he recalls, he told his physician and close friend that he had three goals: “I want to stop Menhaden fishing from killing all the pogies, because they clean up the water. I want to pass Sunday hunting. And I want to legalize medical marijuana.”
Senator Bill Rabon's Office, July 14, 2021 // Photos by Eamon Queeney
One of the members of his original class from 2011 is Senator Kathy Harrington, now majority leader and the number-two Republican in the state Senate.
“I told that class—most of them probably don’t remember—11 years ago that I plan to do this at some point,” said Rabon. “I knew 11 years ago wasn’t the time—when you're a freshman you come up with some idea that's basically a game-changer for the state, you can’t expect to accomplish that.”
Today, Harrington is a co-sponsor of SB 711, with a personal story of her own. Her husband was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. “If you had asked me six months ago if I would support this bill, I would have said no,” said Harrington. “But life comes at you fast.”
With two top Republicans sponsoring the bill, conventional wisdom would hold that the bill should soar through the process. But caucus politics are trickier than it may appear. And as much as leadership may want something, leaders serve only because a majority of the caucus votes for them.
“A Rules Committee Chairman is to be the expression of the caucus’ will or the leadership’s will, depending on how high up the bill gets analyzed,” said WRAL’s statehouse reporter Travis Fain. “Caucuses are a really interesting thing ... you’re only in leadership as long as your caucus says you’re in leadership.”
Rabon echoed the need to be in sync with the caucus. “If you’re in a leadership role,” he said, “that’s a very strong commitment you have to your caucus. This is not an issue that everyone is comfortable with, or that they can easily get comfortable with.
“I would hope that everyone could get in as good a place with it as I am,” he continued. “You know that’s not going to happen, but their feelings about it have to be taken seriously.”
Rabon and others in leadership have repeatedly said that they’re not whipping votes or applying pressure to holdouts.
“Because I’m the Rules Chairman, I want them to know that this is a bill that I’m very passionate about,” he insisted, “but their feelings for or against it have absolutely no influence on my job, or their job, or my position or their position in the caucus.”
His colleagues have praised how he’s handled the process.
“I commend Senator Rabon for bringing this bill forward. It’s about time, it’s much needed,” said Senator Mujtaba Mohammed, a Democrat from Charlotte. “I think Senator Rabon is doing a good job as far as his willingness to push this bill, to see it advance.”
Mohammed recently proposed an amendment that would allocate excess revenue raised from medical marijuana licenses to a substance-abuse and mental-health reinvestment fund. Rabon told The Assembly he has concerns about earmarking funds for any purpose, but is engaging with the idea.
Mohammed and other Democrats have also raised concerns that the bill stops short of marijuana decriminalization. That approach, which the Senate’s top Republican Phil Berger said in April is enjoying growing support, remains an opportunity for bipartisan action.
But for now, it’s been ruled out of scope. “I heard your compassion,” Rabon told Mohammed. “But this bill is simply for people with severe debilitating diseases to improve their quality of life. I think what you're talking about would have to stand on its feet in another bill, at another time, by another sponsor.”
Others in the Republican caucus remain focused on ensuring the bill has strict guardrails, with a narrowly tailored list of eligible reasons to receive medical marijuana that avoids the kinds of pitfalls they’ve seen in other states.
Senator Newton has spoken publicly about having a bridge to cross to get comfortable on this issue. He told The Assembly that the open committee process was key to that.
“So I happen to be a proponent of letting this [committee] system work,” said Newton. “And just to put it simply, if it essentially looks like it is recreational use of marijuana, I will vote against it. If it truly is medical marijuana, finely tailored with good guardrails ... then I may very well vote for it, but it’s too early for me to make that call.”
Rabon has signaled openness on discussion, though he is careful to stress that interlocutors must be engaging in good faith.
“If you have ideas that are supported and that will make this a better idea, let's talk about them,” Rabon told The Assembly. “And by the same token, if you have an idea that you just want to derail this with, I’m not going to go along with you. I plan to, at some point, pass this bill out of the Senate, do everything in my power to pass it through the House and get it to the Governor’s desk.”
Senator Rabon’s best friend was a man named Mose Lewis, a Command Sergeant Major with six tours of duty under his belt. Rabon and Lewis had a bet on who would die first: Rabon with cancer or Lewis with ALS.
“He came to see me one morning,” remembered Rabon. “He could barely talk, couldn’t swallow.” It was the last time Rabon saw him. Lewis’ funeral was on the last day of Rabon’s course of chemotherapy.
In 2019, Lewis’ daughter, an accomplished Superior Court Judge and Rabon’s goddaughter, died from cancer.
“She would not use cannabis ... because she was a judge,” said Rabon. “She died a horrible death ... I begged her. Her brother begged her. She wouldn’t use it.”
Senate Bill 711 still has a long way to go. “I tell you they will never be satisfied until that noxious fume is as prevalent as booze,” alleged one of the bill’s harshest critics, Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League. “The last thing we need in this country is another legal intoxicant.”
But for Senator Rabon, that misses the point.
“It is a compassionate care act,” he said. “It’s just to show your fellow man that you care and that you love them and that you’re going to try to make their situation as livable as it can be, as long as it can be. That’s pretty much it.”
Kyle Villemain is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Assembly. Reach him at Kyle@TheAssemblyNC.com.