Alabama Legislature

Compromise Medical Marijuana Bill to Get House Committee Vote

Medical marijuana neon sign at a dispensary in Los Angeles. (Source: Laurie Avocado [CC BY 2.0 ]
MONTGOMERY — After the House Rules Chairman said a Senate-passed medical marijuana bill wouldn’t advance in the House, lawmakers were working on a compromise Wednesday that takes a more incremental approach and keeps an existing experimental treatment program in place.

Bill sponsor Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, told Alabama Daily News that a substitute bill to create a state commission to regulate medical marijuana will get a public hearing and committee vote Tuesday. If the bill is approved in the remaining week or two of this legislative session, that commission will make recommendations to lawmakers next year about medical marijuana laws.

“This will not set us back any time and it lets the commission have input into the law design,” Melson said Wednesday evening.

In his original bill, medical marijuana would not be available to patients until 2021.

Earlier this month, the Andalusia Star News reported that House Rules Chairman Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said the bill wouldn’t get a vote in the House.

Wednesday morning, Jones, whose committee controls the flow of legislation on the House floor, told Alabama Daily News he had concerns about “ripple effects” of the original bill, including its possible impact on traffic laws, employment laws and state criminal codes.

“I just don’t think it’s going to happen this year because I don’t see it being totally fleshed out this year,” he said Wednesday morning.

Jones couldn’t be reached Wednesday afternoon about the substitute. But Rep. Mike Ball, who has advocated for medical marijuana in the House, said he was comfortable that the substitute will get a vote in the House.

“I don’t see any roadblocks popping up,” he said.

Under Melson’s original Senate Bill 236, the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, a state agency, would create a patient registry system of qualified patients, issue medical cannabis cards and license the cultivation, processing, transportation, manufacturing, packaging, dispensing and sale of cannabis.

Melson said that under the substitute bill, the commission would meet several times before the end of the year to develop the rules of medical marijuana in Alabama and “how to keep it in patients’ hands and out of the hands of the general public.”

Melson said his substitute bill will also extend Carly’s Law as the original bill did.

“I think (Wednesday) morning, we thought it was a dead bill and we were going to get nothing,” medical marijuana advocate Dustin Chandler of Hoover said. “A step forward is better (than) no step at all.”

Named for Chandler’s young daughter, the 2014 Carly’s Law allows the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study the cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to treat severe epileptic seizures.

Carly’s Law expires this year if lawmakers don’t act.

Senate Bill 236 passed the Senate 17-to-6 on May 9 and was referred in the House to the Health Committee. But until Wednesday, it hadn’t seen any momentum.

House Health Committee chairman Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, confirmed there would be a hearing and vote on Tuesday. He said creating the commission will allow lawmakers to work with it to tighten up a future medical marijuana bill “because we want to make sure this is truly used for those who need it.”

The original Senate-approved bill would have legalized medical marijuana for patients with about 30 qualifying conditions, including addiction, cancer, autism, epilepsy, terminal conditions and in need of end-of-life care.

“I like this better,” Ball said about the substitute. “We get the agency in place, we get medical professionals on the commission and they’re working publicly to figure out the best way to approach this.”

If the substitute for Senate Bill 236 is approved in committee, it will still need House approval and then go back to the Senate for another vote.

Next week may be the final days of the 2019 legislative session.

Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, is a Health Committee member. He said he supports medical marijuana if “it’s done correctly” and under the direction of health care providers.

“I certainly would like to see (the bill) brought to committee, debated and hear out the arguments of both sides,” Rafferty said Wednesday about the original bill.

Rafferty also said his priority cannabis legislation would have allowed the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. That legislation failed in another House committee early this month.

Last year, UAB reported that a study allowed under Carly’s Law showed CBD oil provides “significant improvements” in seizure frequency and other measures of efficacy in patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy. The study focused on 132 patients, including 72 children.

Bob Shepard, a UAB spokesman, said Carly’s Law allowed university researchers to study a pharmaceutical grade version of CBD oil known as Epidiolex. The FDA has since approved Epidiolex and physicians can prescribe it to treat intractable epilepsy. The university is transitioning the patients who were enrolled in the Carly’s Law studies to prescription Epidiolex. That process is still ongoing, Shepard said.