Alabama Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Bill

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The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved a bill authorizing medical marijuana in an unexpectedly swift move shortly after the Senate convened.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, passed the chamber on a 17 to 6 vote. It now goes to the Alabama House of Representatives.

“I think it’s a good step,” Melson said. “We’ll continue on downstairs and hopefully we’ll get the governor to sign it.”

Melson’s bill would allow individuals to use medical marijuana for certain conditions if other treatments are not working. A person would need at least two physicians to sign off on the use of medical marijuana, and submit to random drug testing. They would also have to apply for a medical cannabis card, which would cost $65 each year. Melson’s bill would create an Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to regulate the use of medical marijuana.

Physicians would be required to complete 10 hours of continuing education on the subject before getting authorization to recommend medical cannabis for patients.

The Alabama Legislature in recent years has authorized the limited use of cannibidiol (CBD) oil to study its effect on children suffering from major seizures. The body passed Carly’s Law in 2014 and Leni’s Law in 2016. Parents of children in those studies, conducted at UAB, said CBD oil has helped make their children’s conditions manageable.

Officials have also been looking for ways to confront the state’s opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were at least 1.2 opioid prescriptions for every person in Alabama. States have looked to medical cannabis as a potential way of reducing the presence of opioids. 2018 study by the University of Georgia found that the availability of medical marijuana cut the use of opioids by over 14%.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said in an interview after the Senate adjourned Thursday that “The opioid problem turned me into a yes vote.” He added that constituents had sought access to medical marijuana for other conditions.

“I’ve had some constituents come to me with bad arthritic conditions and other issues that have asked about possible passage, because they’ve seen other states do the same,” he said. “People are looking for relief.”

Melson’s bill would allow the use of medical marijuana for autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy, cancer, degenerative or pervasive neurological disorders, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscle disorders, opioid addictions, pain syndromes or pain associated with other conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission could approve additional conditions for treatment.

The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission would have 11 members, six of whom would be physicians. The commission would also regulate operations growing medical grade cannabis, but could fast track some growers by 2021. Counties and municipalities that did not want cannabis growers could opt out by passing a resolution to that effect by July 31, 2020.

Medical cannabis would be subject to several different taxes, including a 9% tax on gross proceeds starting in 2020 and a 10% privilege tax starting in 2021. In addition, counties and municipalities could impose a local 2.1% tax on gross proceeds from sales.

The legislation ran into a filibuster from Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, on Wednesday, who raised concerns about research into medical marijuana and whether it would be properly prescribed. But the vote on the bill took place Thursday morning before Stutts could resume it.

Stutts said after adjournment Thursday he would have spoken on the bill, but said after he saw that “it was obviously being rammed through, there was no purpose in laying down in front of a train.”

But Stutts stuck to his objections.

“From a medical standpoint I don’t think it’s mainstream medicine,” he said. “Every other medicine we prescribe has been through vigorous trials. We know the dosage we know how it works in the body, we know the mechanism of action. Marijuana doesn’t fit that bill.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall said “There were issues related to DUIs” in the bill that he wanted to see addressed.

“We do think there are threshold limits set in other places like .08 (blood alcohol content) for alcohol that talk about what does it mean to be impaired by THC,” he said in an interview in the Alabama State House Thursday. “I think there’s a prosecution component that needs to be discussed that hasn’t been part of the equation.”

Melson said he was hopeful for the bill in the lower chamber.

“We’ll continue on downstairs, and hopefully we’ll get the governor to sign it,” he said.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Thursday the bill would go to the House Health Committee. McCutcheon co-sponsored a House version of the bill, but said it was “a little early” to say if the votes were in the chamber to pass it.

“I think by the time we get into next week and the bill is going before the committee, I think we’ll have a better feel for how many people are going to vote for it,” he said.

Lori Jhons, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ivey, wrote in an email Thursday that “The governor will thoroughly review any bill that reaches her desk for signature before making a final decision.”