MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate has passed legislation to allow and regulate medical marijuana.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he believes medical marijuana can bring pain relief to many Alabamians. He’s worked on the legislation for more than a year, and addressed a variety of groups’ concerns.
“This is going to be grown by the people of Alabama, dispenses by the people of Alabama, and is for patients of Alabama,” Melson said. “It’s not about getting high, it’s about getting well.”
The final vote was 22 "yeas" and 11 "nays." The legislation now goes to the House.
The “Compassion Act” creates a nine-member Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries. It requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.
More than a dozen qualifying medical conditions and symptoms are listed in the bill, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea, and cancer-related chronic pain and nausea.
Patients must have the O.K. of approved doctors to qualify.
For a doctor to prescribe a patient to use medical marijuana it has to be proven that all other methods of treatment are unsuccessful.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, was a main voice of opposition during the five hours of debate on the Senate floor.
“We’re calling it a medicine, but as a physician I can’t write a prescription for it,” Stutts, a doctor, said. “This bill has the potential to have huge ramifications across the state.”
A number of amendments were added to the final bill during floor discussion.
Amendments from Melson require the commission to set up rules and standards of how dispensary employees are to be trained, and to cap the level of THC that can be prescribed to 75 mg. Previously there was no cap set.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, attempted to amend the bill further to cap the THC levels at 50 mg, but that amendment was defeated. Orr said he was worried about the safety of Alabamians using the drug and “wanted to err on the side of safety.”
Orr attempted to further limit the list of qualifying conditions with an amendment, but it failed.
At one point during the already lengthy debate, Orr began to filibuster the bill and threatened to kill the bill if he wasn’t allowed to air out his grievances with the legislation through the amendments he was offering.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, questioned Orr’s intentions, asking if all his amendments would change his ultimate vote on the bill. Orr, who voted "no," said his amendments were aimed at making a potential law better.
“If I wanted to stop the bill, by golly, I would do it,” Orr said. “We could just take a whole lot of time to do it. We could take days of the legislative time, your time, everybody’s time in the chamber, and that’s our prerogative, and I’ve got enough SOB in me, I would do it.”
The bill does not allow for the smoking or vaping of marijuana or edible forms of the drug. However, treatment in the form of pills, gelatinous cubes, gels, oils or creams, transdermal patches and nebulizers would be allowed.
Users would receive a state-issued medical cannabis card, and an electronic patient registry would be created.
The bill allows for 34 total dispensaries in the state. It mandates no more than 70 doses per patient at one time.
The marijuana would be grown in-state by farmers, and the process to create the product would be conducted by Alabama businesses.
An amendment from Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, was added that requires farmers who grow the crop to have at least 15 years of farming experience.
Two amendments from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, were added that require at least 25% of the licensed dispensaries involved be minority owned.
“We are wanting to expand it and give more people an opportunity,” Singleton said.
An amendment from Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, prevents the Medical Cannabis Commission from adding new qualifying conditions. Any new conditions would need to be approved by the Legislature.
Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, added an amendment that includes menopause as a qualifying condition.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent a letter to legislators earlier this year saying he opposes the bill. He said marijuana is an addictive substance, and he drew parallels with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. He also noted that federal law continues to ban marijuana.
The Senate approved similar legislation last year, but the bill faced more opposition in the House and was heavily amended to create a study commission on medical marijuana.
Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, also opposed the bill. He said the federal government has already labeled marijuana illegal.
“We are trying to legalize a Schedule I federally controlled drug,” Butler said. “We call it medical marijuana, but that drug is still a federally controlled drug. I don’t think it’s right to override the federal law.”
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, voted against the bill. He said that there still wasn’t enough control over the qualifying conditions for him to support it.
“There are a lot of things in there that I have a lot of compassion about, but I think it’s still too broad,” Givhan said. “Melson has made some of my requested changes, but it’s not enough to get my vote.”
Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, voted against it. He said a major concern for him was allowing those who use medical marijuana to operate vehicles or heavy machinery.
“I just think those common-sense things are really important, and kind of feel like the people of Alabama do as well,” Reed told ADN. “Whether you're for this or not, being able to make sure it’s done appropriately and correctly.”
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, voted against the bill. He said he thinks passing the law will lead to allowing recreational marijuana in the state.
“Some want recreational use of marijuana to be legal. I believe this opens that door,” Allen said. “This legislation is bad public policy. I remain concerned about its effects on law enforcement, and the safety of our drivers on our roads.”
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, voted against the bill. He said he was worried about the well being of children in the state if medical marijuana was legalized.
“I believe we are doing irreparable damage to the children of our state,” Roberts said “If there was a way to expand Carly’s Law or Lenny’s Law, then I would be completely for that.”
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, supported the bill. She said this will give people an alternative pain medication rather than resorting to opioid drugs.
“It really is time for us to start addressing medical issues rather than prescription drugs,” Coleman-Madison said. “We know where that has gotten us with the opioid epidemic, and we have really not been able to slow that down. This enables people to get the help that they need. I mean, it’s across the board, young and old and everyone, so I think it’s a great bill.”
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, voted "yes" because he said the bill has the potential to help tackle the opioid abuse crisis in the state.
“The fact that it’s shown that the use of marijuana is much better in dealing with people who are in pain, based on the research that I’ve seen, and being non-addictive, and I think the crisis we’re facing with opioids in the state and country, that is the issue that resonated with me and why I supported the legislation,” Marsh said.