MONTGOMERY — Legislation to allow and regulate the use of medical marijuana cleared its first vote Wednesday and now moves to the state Senate, where about half its members voted last year to approve a similar bill.
“We want to make sure that people who have tried other avenues who are not successful have access to this to try if their physician wants them to,” Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
That committee voted 8-1 to advance Senate Bill 165 with one abstention from Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, was the only “No” vote. He had several concerns, the biggest being increased access to marijuana.
“There’s going to be more marijuana used and more marijuana available to society and the community in general and that’s my concern,” said Stutts, R-Tuscumbia. He and Melson are both medical doctors.
Melson titled his bill the “Compassion Act.” It creates an appointed nine-member Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries and requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.
The bill does not allow for the smoking of 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 and mandates no more than 70 doses per patient at one time.
“It’s a balancing act between access for convenience and access for safety, so we feel like we’ve found the correct number for that,” Melson said.
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 OK of approved doctors to qualify.
An amendment was approved by the committee that eliminates the time frame for treating people with terminal illnesses. It takes out the six-month requirement and allows for treatment on an as-needed basis.
The commission could add other conditions later based on scientific evidence that cannabis treats the condition.
Givhan, the Republican from Huntsville, said allowing the commission to continue to add qualifying illnesses was one of his main concerns with the bill.
“I think our government relegates too much to elected bureaucrats now and I’m not interested in giving them further access,” Givhan said during the meeting.
There’s also an appeals panel, where patients can make their cases for why they should be issued a card.
The bill says employers are not required to permit or accommodate the use of medical cannabis and don’t have to hire someone who uses it.
Another approved amendment Wednesday addresses workman’s compensation by saying a person who has a medical cannabis card and is proven to be at fault cannot file a claim.
Shelby County Sheriff’s Capt. Clay Hammac spoke in opposition to the bill during the public hearing. He said there are already laws in Alabama that can help those with debilitating illnesses, citing Carly’s Law, which passed in 2014 and authorized the study of Cannabidiol, or CBD, and its impact on reducing seizures in children.
“To say that if this bill doesn’t pass that our Alabama citizens will suffer is a gross misrepresentation of what the law currently affords,” Hammac said. “The reality is the passage of this bill, from a law enforcement perspective, is nothing more than an incremental step towards the decriminalization of a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Hammac said he agrees with Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who addressed lawmakers in a four-page letter last month explaining his opposition to Melson’s bill.
Multiple advocates spoke in support of the bill, including Dustin Chandler, whose daughter Carly is the namesake for Carly’s Law. He told the committee to think of people like his daughter who have benefited from using cannabis products when considering the bill.
“I encourage you to please, when you’re thinking of those things, think of the suffering people in Alabama who are hopeless, and turn them into hopeful,” he told the committee.
In 2019, a medical marijuana legalization bill by Melson cleared the 35-member Senate on a 17-6 vote. Several senators voted “pass,” meaning not voting or not present.
When the bill came before the House, it was heavily amended to create a study commission on medical marijuana. That group met multiple times in 2019 and helped draft the new legislation.
Melson said he spoke with House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, about the bill and said he “would do what he can to get it to the floor for a vote.”
“Pass or fail on the floor is fine but I got to get it out of the Senate first,” Melson said.
Melson said he hopes to get a vote in the Senate on his bill within the next two weeks.
Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he expects to vote yes for the bill again.
“I’ve heard no significant changes have been made this year so I’m still supportive of Sen. Melson and I would give it a vote to pass it out of the Senate,” Marsh said.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he understands the concerns from both sides but wants to give Alabamians the pathway to get the proper medication they need.
“I just don’t know why I would look at a parent and say, ‘Well I’m the government and I know what’s better for you than you do,'” Ward said.
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, supports the bill and likes how it could help stop potential illegal drug use.
“I don’t want to push law-abiding citizens out there who are trying to do what’s right – taking the opioids and constantly being addicted and strung out and it’s still not working – I don’t want to push them on the street,” Coleman-Madison said.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, voted no last year. He said he needs to read the bill before he makes a decision on it this year.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, supports the bill and hopes it will help cut back on the state’s opioid abuse problem.
“I think that this is a step forward for the state of Alabama and it’s a place we need to be,” Singleton said. “We have a real opioid epidemic in this state and I think it’ll help a lot.”
Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, voted for the bill in 2019 and plans to again.
“I voted for this bill last year because it was the most conservative, limited medical marijuana bill in the nation,” Jones said Wednesday. “I believe that it is even stronger this year. Medical marijuana has been shown to help patients who suffer from conditions like seizures or who are going through treatments such as chemotherapy. The most important thing to me is that medical marijuana must be regulated properly and truly used as a controlled prescription medication. I believe this bill does that, and so I plan to support it again on the Senate floor.”
Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, is a pharmacist by profession. He voted no last year on the bill and said he wants the state to have stronger regulation over marijuana than what Melson’s bill would offer.
“I’ve been practicing in health care 48 years and drugs usually have very strong control, I don’t see the control in here,” Butler said. “That you could put it in a box and lock it, the control is just not there.”