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Interview, Part 1: AG Luther Strange Talks about Staffing, BP, Bingo and Prison Overcrowding

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Recently, we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Alabama’s Attorney General Luther Strange.

Strange is entering his second year as AG and we wanted to have a conversation about the work of the last year and the things facing the state in the new year.

Much has changed around the state since Strange has taken office among those in law enforcement there is a renewed confidence in the office of the Attorney General. Luther Strange is a man that quietly exudes trust, confidence and character. His conversation is full, honest and enlightening. Since taking office Strange and his team have face momentous challenges from immigration reform to man-made and natural disasters. On every occasion, Strange has tackled each event with his unmistakable calm and conviction.

APR: Our general idea today, was to let you talk about whatever is on your mind but I know a lot of people want to hear what you are thinking on immigration. Now, you guys have been beaten like rented mules on immigration so, I don’t know if you want to talk about that today.

STRANGE: I do want to talk about that and answer any questions you might have. I can give you kind of the waterfront view here of what all we are doing in terms of priorities.

The first, of course, was to establish a strong team in our executive office which we have done. We have added about half a dozen very bright young lawyers. Many who have clerked for judges and, for example, our solicitor worked on the Supreme Court.

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Really sharp 30-something lawyers that have private firm experience that wanted to come and do public service and then I hope will go back into the private sector and maybe run for office someday or be a judge. This is very important.

We put in place probably the best investigative, white-collar public corruption team in the country, really, with Matt Hart and John Gibbs, two really experienced prosecutors and Tim Fuhrman who was former FBI bureau chief in Mobile/Montgomery and one of his deputies.

Public corruption and white-collar crime is something that I have talked a lot about. We are going to focus on that going forward.  So, personnel and putting together the right team was important. We’ve done that and I am really comfortable that we have a super group.

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And then, of course, the issues.

Starting with the oil spill, that has probably been my top priority in terms of time. The oil spill case against BP. You know, Alabama sued BP. The first thing I did when I came into office was to replace the private law firm that Troy King had hired on a contingency fee basis and brought the case in house. Now, we don’t have to pay any outside legal fees and we can keep the recovery [monies] for the citizens.

The case is being tried in New Orleans in what is called a multi-district litigation case, which are these massive cases with thousands of plaintiffs, private plaintiffs, five states, the United States Government, and eight defendants to manage. They require very special judges in these very special cases. The good news is the judge appointed me to ordain a council for the states so that Alabama has a seat at the table, literally, which gives us a great opportunity through litigation to really make our case. So that is really good.

The amount of money that we could possibly recover is very high. I don’t have an estimate but it is very significant because you’ve got economic damages to our economy and you have environmental damages to the state. And so, we are working very hard on that case. And that is going very well so far.

The trial is scheduled for February 27. Sometime between now and then there will be discussions about trying to settle this case. There are a lot of people in the legislature that want to get some of the money from this settlement to fill in holes and so you will just have to stay tuned on that and see how it goes.

Our job is to focus on the trial. The Governor’s office, Cooper Shattuck, and the Governor’s team are doing all of the damage analysis, what damages we suffered and all, what the numbers are. The BP case has been a huge issue for us.

APR: Before you took office the matter of Bingo seem to be an everyday topic in the news, what is different now?

We have changed the debate on the gambling controversy. What I did when I came to office was to go to all of the law enforcement in the counties where there is a bingo amendment, a charitable bingo amendment, and I told them all, “Here’s the deal. Slot machines are illegal, period. The games you are operating have to be traditional bingo the way the court defined it in the Cornerstone case, which is the test, and it is a six-point test. Card traditional bingo the way that you and I understand it. And the third thing is, it has to be for a charitable purpose. You can’t pay someone to operate the game. It has got to go to charity.” So we told them all, “Look, we are going to come and investigate your places and we are going to shut you down for not complying but we will allow you to go to court and if you can prove that what you are doing is legal, then you can operate. If you can’t, you are going to be shut down.”

And so, we have taken it off the front pages. It is in court now. We actually have one case pending before the state supreme court that I hope will give us the final answer on these machines that they are illegal and that will help to knock that out. That is where that stands and that has been good because that has been such a controversial issue when I came into office. It really got Bob Riley all tied up in committing resources to that.

APR: One of the things that you are doing that is kind of unique is that you are bringing these cases in house and not farming them out to other law firms.

STRANGE: That’s right. We have reduced our legal bills by a very significant amount. The number of lawyers we hired are doing the work they were doing outside for a lot more money than we are paying now to do it with our own staff. We have saved an awful lot of money there. Plus, we got rid of the task forces and that saved an awful lot of money, too.

Of course, we are working on some of the other legislation that came out of the last session. The redistricting, for example, of the school boards and the congressional districts. We got that approved in record time by the courts and justice department. So that is good. Now we’ve got upcoming the legislative redistricting. That is going to be tougher I think because it typically is, but I like what we have done so far.

We are in court now on the PAC-to-PAC and the Dues Checkoff legislation that goes after AEA. And we have been basically winning those cases. There is one part of it…this idea of what is electioneering. This view we have of AEA is this, I think that when they say they are “educating their voters” they are basically campaigning for or against somebody. And they will tell you that they are just informing them of the issues. I think, given their history, that it is very clear that they are telling people how to vote. But that issue is going to be before the state supreme court and hopefully we will get an answer from them soon.

APR: I just recently did a story on our prisons and the overcrowding situation and how sentencing reform is being talked about as possible factor in relief. The story received a lot of traffic and people are talking about sentencing reform these days.

There was some interesting testimony before the federal Sentencing Commission pointing out that in effect the mandatory minimums have had some a counter effects on the prisons. There is a sense that the line of justice on this has really gone the opposite way. Now we are kind of uniformly punishing folks and the punishment is not fitting the crime. Many are saying that we have lost the sense of just desserts.

STRANGE: Yeah, I do. I actually was on a panel at the Federalists Society Meeting in Washington, DC, about a month ago. We talked about that with Judge Clement who is on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and other experts from around the country. I probably was invited because of Judge [Bill] Pryor, who was my predecessor. Bill was particularly interested in truth in sentencing that was an issue that he was really concerned about so I have become familiar with it and I have been working with Cam Ward [Senator Cam Ward is Chairman of the Joint Commission on Prisons] on that. I read your article I think it captured where we are with the prisons being at 190 percent capacity or more.

We are incarcerating a lot of people and the question is are we really being fair to victims who expect people to serve the time that they have been sentenced to? Particularly with serious crimes, are we being fair to victims and are we truly going after and punishing the bad guys? Are we giving the people who maybe have a chance to take back their lives a chance to do that?

The way I break it down, and I have talked to Cam about this because I am going to work closely with the legislature on it, I think that there are three areas. There is one area which is the death penalty, we have lots of people on death row and they are there for long periods of time probably an average of well over 20 years. That is a very long time for victims to have to endure.

Texas and some other states have found a way to expedite that process insuring that people have all of their rights of appeal, no innocent person is ever executed, all of those kinds of things. So you want to be tough on the worst of the worst and I think there is a way to expedite the sentence for these crimes.

And the second area is, are you going to sentence the really bad guys to the sentence that they are actually given? That is the truth in sentencing part. Somebody commits a terrible, heinous crime and they get sentenced. The victims want to know when are they going to get out, in 10 or 20 years, or 3 years?

The third area, and this is probably the toughest area, Cam and I have talked a lot about this, what can you do with the people who can possibly be rehabilitated? Or who are caught up in drugs? Or have done something that if they had been given the right discipline and possibly treatment they could be salvaged and saved from a life in prison?

What I am interested in looking at, and I have been doing this, is to find out what works in practice. I actually had the former attorney general of Virginia come to Montgomery to talk to us about that. And I have met with some key people from the Texas system. They have been able to do a lot of work in this area. Those states are strong on crime, strong on enforcement, tough on crime but they also have limited resources and we are looking at their results.

There is another area that maybe you and Cam talked about that I am interested in learning more about and that is this risk assessment process. Risk assessment has become almost a science and if you have the right people accessing risks of various offenders when they come into the system and at every stage throughout the system of prison until the time they are released. There is a pretty good statistical science now that can tell you pretty accurately what they need and how likely they are to re-offend. Right now we are not doing very much of that. But if it is something that can be implemented you are more assured that you are going to do the right thing with some of these low-level offenders.

One of the things that makes this whole thing complicated is, there is a good example that happened about six months ago. An officer was killed in Anniston, his name was Justin Sollohub, he was just 26 years old. He was chasing a guy around the corner in the projects. The guy he was chasing was a pretty well-known druggie, he chased him around the corner and got shot and killed. The guy [had previously been released] after a very short-term sentence for dealing drugs. Now, he had never killed anybody but he was released. A situation like that makes people have to say, “Well, you know, you can’t be releasing these people because you don’t know what they are capable of doing.” That is a tough thing and that is why it is going to take working with our judges and with our prosecutors to make sure everybody is on the same page including the victims groups to come up with a system that works.

APR: As you know my wife Susan helped facilitate a couple of half-way homes in St. Clair county while we were there. While there were problems, these were women, who are much easier to manage than men in these situations, but there was success among a few of those women and really success among a handful of them. So there is a reason to look at this smaller community situations like this.

She worked very closely with [District Attorney] Richard Minor, [Circuit Court] Judge Phil Seay, and [Circuit Court] Judge Jim Hill. These men knew a lot of these offender, they knew their family, they knew the background and they were able to make some assessments that “this one” would be okay, and “this one” wouldn’t. Since so many of these mandatory minimums are federal, how do we get, or can we get more control in the hands of the local DA and the local judges.

STRANGE: I think you have to have the judges’ support. A judge would have to buy into this because if they don’t and they are being mandated by someone from Montgomery or whatever, they are not going to be happy and it is not going to get anywhere. So, that’s where, I think, you have to have a buy-in from the judges. They want to protect their discretion because of just exactly what you said, they understand, by and large, who these people are and where they come from (what part of the county), what their lives are like and how bad the crime was. And, so I think, that any solution has to go in that direction. Where it gets to be tough is you cannot have some racial disparity or doing favors for friends and all that. At some point, you have just got to rely on the system to work.

In the next part of our conversation, the Attorney General talks about the effects of the state’s law enforcement and prosecution of crime, his first year in office and immigration.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Alabama lawmakers advance bill banning transgender athletes in K-12 sports

Jessa Reid Bolling

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A House committee voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would ban transgender teenagers from playing on the sports teams of the gender they identify with. 

House Bill 35, titled the Gender Is Real Legislative Act, or GIRL Act, would require student-athletes in K-12 schools to participate as the gender listed on their birth certificate, preventing transgender athletes from competing as the gender they identify as.

Sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, the bill passed the House State Government Committee on an 8-4 vote. The bill will now go to the full House. 

The bill, according to Pringle, is aimed at preserving the accomplishments of women and to prevent women from having to compete against athletes who were born male.

“Gender is real. There are biological differences between boys and girls that influence athletic performance,” Pringle said in a statement. “The GIRL Bill seeks to support female student-athletes, so that they may compete against each other and not have to compete against male students with an unfair advantage.”

Opponents say that HB35 was born out of prejudice against transgender youth rather than seeking to protect women in athletics. 

Carmarion D. Anderson, Alabama state director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ+ rights organization, called the bill a “political advertisement” with no supporting evidence

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Anderson said she believes this bill will do harm to young transgender youth by segregating them from competing in sports events, further contributing to the ostracization trans youth feel in society.

“We’re concerned about a student’s mental health when they cannot participate in the sports that are comfortable for them, and the level of dysphoria they already face when they are transitioning,” said Anderson. 

Anderson also said that while it is unfortunate that this bill passed the committee, HRC will be at the forefront to try to see the bill defeated. 

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The bill now heads to the full House.

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Legislation may harm pets locked in hot cars, not help, vets and advocates say

Eddie Burkhalter

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A bill passed by the Alabama Senate last week lawmakers say will help keep pets trapped in hot cars safe, might actually endanger the animals, according to some animal advocates and veterinarians.

That bill was written by a dog breeder who some worry purposefully wrote the bill to make it harder to keep animals safe, and to instead protect breeders from having animals confiscated, they told APR this week. 

Mindy Gilbert, The Human Society’s Alabama state director, told APR by phone on Tuesday that she’s certain that the senate bill’s sponsor, Alabama Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, “does have good intentions, but I think the devils in the details.” 

Several attempts this week to reach Rep. Holley were unsuccessful. 

The bill would grant criminal immunity to a civilian who rescues an animal from a vehicle, and would provide civil and criminal immunity to first responders who do so. The legislation also makes it a misdemeanor crime if a pet dies in a hot car. 

Gilbert said that while those might also sound like great ideas, the bill would actually reduce criminal penalties for allowing a pet to die in a hot car. 

“Our current cruelty statute, which has been used in cases like this, would define that as a class C felony,” Gilbert said. 

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A Trussville woman in 2018 was charged with felony aggravated cruelty to animals for leaving her dog in a locked car while shopping in Walmart. The dog died after police broke out a window and removed the distressed animal. 

The bill also states that the ambient temperature of the interior of a vehicle must be 99 degrees or hotter to be charged under the legislation. 

Gilbert said she’s spoken with numerous veterinarians who all said that 99 degrees is too hot to be safe for pets trapped in cars. 

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Gilbert said that for many breeds of pets, and pets with compromised health, “that requirement in order to rescue them will absolutely sentence them to death,” and there are other aspects of the bill that trouble her. 

“I think everybody was very focused on providing immunity to first responders, which I think is fabulous,” Gilbert said of the legislation, but worried that it doesn’t include animal control personnel in its definition of public safety officials and covered by the bill’s immunity clause. 

Holley’s legislation defines public safety officials as “An individual employed by a law enforcement agency, fire department, or 911 emergency service.” 

Dr. Mark Colicchio, a veterinarian in Spanish Fort, reached out to Sen. Holley and all of the members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee about his concerns with the bill prior to its passage in the senate. Holley put Colicchio in touch with the man he said wrote the bill, Norman Horton.

Colicchio said he spoke to Horton, owner of the Dale County german shepherd breeding company Triple S Shepherds, at length about his concerns, but that none were addressed in the final legislation. 

“There are a lot of temperature references in there which make no sense whatsoever,” Colicchio said. 

Colicchio said he spoke with Horton about the bill’s language that required the ambient temperature of the interior of a vehicle to be 99 degrees or higher before a person could be charged. He said he told Horton that there’s no practical way for a public safety official to measure the ambient temperature inside a locked vehicle from outside, to which he said Horton suggested they call carry digital temperature readers. 

Such devices measure surface temperatures, and wouldn’t  be able to read the temperature inside a locked car, Colicchio said. 

After speaking with veterinarians at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine Cholicchio said they looked at data that suggested that if the outside temperature of a vehicle, which can be more easily measured, was 78 degrees an animal trapped inside with no ventilation could be in jeopardy. 

Colicchio said he suspects the legislation was purposely written to protect owners from having their animals taken from them in the event they’re left in hot cars. 

“He doesn’t want breeders to risk having their valuable dogs stolen out of the car because somebody thinks they’re at risk,” Colicchio said. “…When you structure a law to benefit yourself, and animals suffer for it, that just gets to me.” 

Horton, speaking by phone Wednesday,  told APR that he wrote the bill to protect animals and to establish the proper way to rescue an animal in distress. 

“This is America, and this is Alabama, and if someone’s gonna be guilty of a crime or charged for a crime then they need to have committed that crime” Horton said. 

Horton said “we don’t need vigilante justice” so he wrote the bill to make clear how best to enter a vehicle if an animal is in need of help. 

Asked how he decided that 99 degrees inside a vehicle was the temperature at which a pet was in danger, Horton said “I got the figure after talking to several veterinarians.” 

Asked which veterinarians he spoke to get that figure, Horton said “that’s immaterial” and declined to name them. 

Horton likened the matter to speed laws, and said while some speed limits are set at 70 MPH, some people, such as police officers, can drive safely at speeds up to 113mph. 

Asked why the bill doesn’t include animal control officers in the immunity protections, Horton said that “it does.” 

Horton pointed to the bill’s language that defines public safety officials as “An individual employed by a law enforcement agency” and said “go to Tuscaloosa. Go to any of the cities around, and animal control officers are employed by the police department. They’re sworn officers.” 

Some animal control officers who work in municipal law enforcement agencies are sworn officers, Gilbert said, but many are not, and in the counties, where animal control is operated as stand-alone agencies, animal control officers are not sworn officers and wouldn’t be immune from prosecution under the legislation. 

Asked why his bill didn’t include all animal control officers, whether they were sworn officers working in law enforcement agencies or not, Horton suggested that it was to ensure owners could be charged with crimes 

“Do we want to charge for the crime when they do something like this or just let them go?” Horton said. 

Horton declined to answer a question about the bill’s language that limits the charge of killing an animal in a hot vehicle to a misdemeanor and soon after ended the interview. 

“It’s not to help the animals,” Colicchio said of the legislation. “That’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

It was unclear Wednesday if Holley’s bill had a sponsor in the state House. There were no similar bills filed Wednesday, according to the state Legislature’s website.

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Legislature

Senate Committee approves medical marijuana bill

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report to a bill that would allow Alabama residents to obtain medical marijuana on an 8 to 1 vote. Senate Bill 167 was sponsored by State Senator Tim Melson (R-Florence).

SB167 would create a tightly regulated network of state-licensed marijuana growers, dispensaries, transporters, and processors. Patients would have to get a recommendation for the drug from their physician. Only physicians who have received the approved training would be able to dispense the cannabis-derived treatments. There would be no smokable products allowed and consumer possession of marijuana in its raw natural form would remain illegal in the state.

Sen. Melson is a retired anesthesiologist who now works in medical research.

“I would not have carried this bill three or four years ago,” Melson said. But there is a growing body of medical evidence that there are medical benefits.

Melson said that while this bill does have provisions for growing and processing marijuana in states there is also, “An option for it to come from outside.”

Melson said that under this bill we will know what is being grown, being processed, and reaches the consumer. The medical association will recommend the training and the education component for the physician. Patients will be issued a medical cannabis card. “The card will not be good in other states.”

Melson said that Alabama dispensaries will not accept out of state medical cannabis cards except one time a year they can get a one-time emergency order. The number of dispensaries will be limited to 34 total. Patients will be allowed to get just a 70-day supply. There is no smoking and no vaping. People in rural areas will have to go far to get one of the dispensaries. There is a, “Balancing act between convenience and safety. There are fifteen qualifying conditions.”

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Rick Hagans is a minister with Harvest Evangelism, which runs Christian rehabs for both men and women drug addicts.

“The gateway that led to methamphetamines and opioids began with marijuana,” Hagans said. “We have found in forty years of work that it is a gateway drug.”

Hagans dismissed the medical benefits claims, “Medical profession said the same thing with opioids. I ask that you proceed with caution and concern. I get tired of burying your sons and daughters,”

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“Thank you for giving us Leni’s Law, but it is not enough,” Christie Kaine said. “I am the Mother of a child with intractable epilepsy. We know from our research that there are other cannaboids that can help with Hardy’s condition, but they can not be used in Alabama due to the level of THC. If Hardy did not live in Alabama he could be seizure-free.

Caleb Crosby with the Alabama Policy Institute said, “It is a real issue and something has to be done about it. Our concern is unintended consequences.”

Crosby said that Republicans, “Run on small government, but this does the opposite.”

“We still have a litany of laws carried over from Prohibition one hundred years ago,” Crosby said. “You will not be able to get rid of all of these regulations and taxes.”

Cynthia Atkinson’s husband was longtime WSFA meteorologist Dan Atkinson, who was also on the Weather Channel.

“Dan had Parkinson’s for ten years,” Atkinson said. “The last five years he suffered from tremendous pain.” He had excellent doctors at the Mayo Clinic and Kirklin Clinic. They did their best.” Dan was prescribed Oxycodone, hydrocodone, lorazepam, and as he got progressively worse morphine. We learned that Israel has been studying cannabis since the 1950s. In 2015 we went to Colorado.” He used patches with 10 mg of CBD and 10 mg of THC. The leg cramps went away. We wanted to bring it back but couldn’t because of the law.

“The opioids and synthetic drugs were racking his body,” Mrs. Atkinson said. Dan passed away in 2017. I can’t help but think that if we lived in another state he could have lived to see his son graduate from Auburn and join the Space Force.

Captain Clay Hammac commands the Shelby County Drug Task Force

“Just because we do not put medical in front of marijuana does not make it medicine,” Capt. Hammac said. Under Alabama law, we already have Leni’s law and Carly’s law and there are cannabis-based medications that have been approved by the FDA.

Hammac warned that this was an “Incremental step toward the decriminalization of a multi-$billion industry. This bill should be before the Health Committee instead of the Judiciary Committee.”

“Law enforcement was never invited to the table to share our experience,” Hammac said of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission.

“A Harvard medical researcher was brought to the commission and virtually laughed out of the room,” Hammac said. “I stand with our Attorney General.”

Hammac blast the “casual way” that this has been handled.

“The reason this is before the Judiciary Committee instead of the Health Committee is that this is the most deliberative thorough committee in state government today,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said. “That nature of the people on this Committee is why this is here.”

“The State has no authority to usurp federal law,” Hammac said.

“I want to make sure that everybody understands where I come from,” Dustin Chandler said. “My daughter Carly obtained CBD oil through Carly’s Law. My daughter was able to get relief through the CBD oil. Studies show that medical cannabis has medical benefits for many people.”

Lori Herring said, “I have been a nurse for 30 years.”

Herring said that the American Academy on Pediatrics opposes the legalization of cannabis. The American Medical Association does not endorse medical cannabis. The Multiple Sclerosis Society can not recommend cannabis as a treatment.

“The side effects, system effects, and long term side effects are not clear,” Herring said. “It has not been shown to be medically effective and could be dangerous. “It has only been approved for two severe forms of epilepsy. We don’t know what a pediatric dose, an adult dose, or a geriatric dose would be.”

Herring warned that marijuana can cause nausea and vomiting unrelieved by current nausea medication and has resulted in death. Legalization has led to increased emergency room visits, paranoia, schizophrenia, and psychotic breaks.

“The marijuana today is more addictive than marijuana in the past,” Herring said. “Legislators should not be taking the place of scientists.”

Dr. Alan Shackelford of Colorado said, “I have seen 25,000 patients in my practice in the last ten years. I doubt you will find anybody who has as much experience with patients than I do.”

Shackelford said that Marylin was a helicopters pilot in Iraq who was shot down and had severe injuries and PTSD did not have a job rarely left her house and now has a job at the VA helping other veterans and is married

Shackleford said that Mason is age 68 and has Parkinson’s. He could not move now he plays baseball and is a deacon in his church. He also said that he treated Charlotte, a girl with Dravet Syndrome with tremendous effect and now she is a healthy twelve-year-old.

“Not all of them are as dramatic as these,” Dr. Shackelford said. Arthritis, autism, PTSD, cancer, pain, Parkinson’s, chemotherapy-related nausea can all be treated with cannabis.

“The people of Alabama deserve the same access to treatment as people in 33 other states,” Dr. Shackelford concluded.

“A number of amendments have been worked out in the last couple of weeks,” Ward said.

The amendments were added and Ward advised Melson to incorporate all the amendments into a substitute to introduce when the bill is on the Senate floor.

The most notable amendment dealt with workmen’s compensation. An employee who is injured or killed on the job is ineligible to receive compensation if his death or injury was due to the employee’s impairment under medical cannabis.

SB167 received a favorable report on an eight to one vote.

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Opinion | Alabama close to allowing hot dogs to be rescued

Joey Kennedy

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Most readers know that we’ve had a grumble of pugs for years. We lost four in the grumble last year. All of our dogs are rescues, and most of them have some disability: unable to walk well, blindness, incontinence, a perpetually crooked head.

And most of the pugs are elderly, so we expect to lose a few this year. Our youngest is Nellie Bly, at about 2 years old. We have a group of older pugs that are around 10-11 years old. Several came from puppy mills. One was surrendered to a vet tech when his owners took him to be put down because the owner’s granddaughter wanted a different dog (I know!). The veterinarian naturally was not going to euthanize a healthy animal, and about a week later, Peerey came to us.

Pugs are bred to do one thing: Sit with their humans, mostly on their laps or next to them on the bed. All of ours are bed pugs.They snore; we adore.

I say all of this to underscore that Veronica and I know not everto leave one of our dogs in a locked car, especially during the summer. But every year, we hear stories of the careless owners who leave their dog (or dogs) in the backseat of a vehicle while they run an errand. The errand takes longer than the owner thought, and heat builds in the car. Too often, that kills the pet, just like it does children, and that happens all too often as well.

As of 2019, 31 states had laws that either prohibit leaving an animal confined in a vehicle under dangerous conditions or provide civil immunity (protection from being sued) for a person who rescues a distressed animal from a vehicle.

Alabama – finally – is on the cusp of joining that group.

A bill (SB 67) sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba) will allow good Samaritans to rescue pets left in a car if they are clearly in danger from either the heat or cold. The bill provides criminal immunity to civilians and grants civil and criminal immunity to law enforcement officers who rescue an animal.

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Important, too, is that bill prevents owners from leaving their animals in a vehicle in a manner that creates an unreasonable risk of harm. If they do, they can be charged with second-degree animal abuse.

It doesn’t take long for the situation in a vehicle to deteriorate, either. 

Even on a mild day, the heat inside a car can go off the rails. According to reports, if the outside temperature is 70 degrees (f), the interior of a vehicle can heat up to 89 degrees in 10 minutes. After a half-hour, the interior temp can be 104 degrees. Of course, it’s much worse on hotter days.

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At 80 degrees, a vehicles inside temperature is at 99 degrees; after a half-hour, the animal is trying to survive in a 114-degree oven. And at 95 degrees, not an unusual June, July, or August temperature in Alabama, the inside temp of a vehicle is about 130 degrees.

Humans can’t even survive long at those temperatures.

There are conditions before a good Samaritan can step up, but they’re not unusual in states that already have similar laws: Among them:

The person has a good faith belief that the confined domestic animal is in imminent danger of suffering physical injury or death unless the domestic animal is removed from the motor vehicle;
The person determines that the motor vehicle is locked or there is no reasonable manner in which the person can remove the domestic animal from the vehicle;
Before entering the motor vehicle, the person notifies a peace officer, emergency medical service provider or first responder or an animal control enforcement agency or deputy of the confined domestic animal;
The person does not use more force than is necessary under the circumstances to enter the motor vehicle and remove the domestic animal from the vehicle.
Remains with the animal in a safe location in reasonable proximity to the motor vehicle until law enforcement or other first responders arrive.
Maintains control of the animal at all times to prevent harm to the animal or others.

There are other conditions that make less sense, however. The bill as passed 33-0 by the state Senate requires the ambient temperature in the vehicle be 99 degrees or higher before a citizen or first-responder can intervene.

I can tell you that a half-hour in a car at 95 degrees will kill a pug; a Lab or Golden might survive that temperature for awhile, but remember, every minute the car’s interior is getting hotter. Pugs are brachycephalic – short nosed – and have trouble breathing outside at 80 or 85 degrees.

Other short-nosed breeds like English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers, have the same issue. It’s one reason why they snort and snore, even in the winter.

Generally, we can tell when a dog locked in a car is distressed, and few good Samaritans are going to be carrying a temperature gauge with them.

Still, the House needs to pass this bill as soon as possible. Spring and summer aren’t that far off, and, no doubt, there will be animals to rescue.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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