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Medical experts sharply divided at Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission heard from two highly respected medical expert witnesses with widely divergent views on the wisdom of passing medical marijuana legislation.

Bertha K. Madras is a professor of psychobiology in the Department of Psychiatry and the chair of the Division of Neurochemistry at Harvard Medical School, She served as associate director for public education in the division on addictions at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Madras advised the Commission against passing medical marijuana legislation.

Dr. Bertha Madras said that evidence of marijuana being used medically can be traced as far back as 1600 years ago with the discovery of a woman who died in childbirth due to a breach.

Madras said that the state passing medical marijuana legislation “Puts the entire drug approval system at risk.”
“Marijuana is not safe for you: all measures are worse,” Dr. Madras said, “Marijuana is not the solution for the opioid crisis.”

Dr. Madras pleaded with legislators to let the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) make the rules for medical marijuana and not go around the federal government by passing state legislation legalizing marijuana as medicine without doing the scientific research and trials necessary to get drugs approved by the FDA. Thousands of, “People died until we had the FDA.”

Madras said that the proper research has not been done on things such as proper drug delivery and that the marijuana industry is selling products that can be delivered by: “smoke, vape, eat, drink, IV, and cream. “What about Specific populations? Pregnant women? Elderly?”

Madras warned that this is not your father’s marijuana, “The THC has risen to as high as 90 percent” in some products.

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Madras warned that marijuana is, “Addictive.” She also warned that it produces intoxication and impairs cognitive functions and that its use can lead to anxiety and produce a psychotic reaction. Madras warned that the drug is not safe for youth and that opioid addicts generally start using marijuana. She argued that there is not enough evidence to use marijuana as a treatment to prevent opioid dependency.

Madras argued that what the state would be doing would be detrimental to the FDA system and that the state should not approve legalization until the FDA approves its use/ She did say that she was not for keeping cancer patients from having it though.

“Medicine is trusted because of its scientific base and tight regulation,” Madras said and that medical marijuana, “Is the least regulated medical drug in the U.S. and should be held to medical standards.”

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Madras argued against using cannabis to treat pain issues saying that “Pain is an undecipherable medical condition,” and warned that the amount of marijuana needed to treat pain and the amount needed to produce euphoria overlap.

The crowd attending the hearing included many persons there to support medical marijuana and a number of people there scoffed at Dr. Madras’s assertions.

Dr. Alan Shackelford made the case for allowing medical cannabis.

Shackleford claimed that he had one elderly patient who was using multiple opioids daily to treat her chronic pain issues and through medical cannabis can tap dance now.

“When Colorado passed medical cannabis regulations in Colorado I knew very little about it,” Dr Shackleford said. But has studied the issue and has found a number of applications for the drug in his medical practice.

Shackleford said that the Colorado medical cannabis law allowed using the drug to treat: Cancer, HIV/Aids, glaucoma, cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, and persistent muscle spasms. PTSD was added in June 2017 and autism was added in April 2019.

“I practice evidence based medicine,” Dr. Shackelford claimed.

Shackelford said that there was a paper showing that the THC in marijuana extract could kill cancer cells in animals in 1975; but they did not do anything with it because of the anti-marijuana bias in the research funding.

Shackelford said that there have been 31 studies on marijuana dosing because of the cost of doing the research given the rules put in place by the government and the bias against the drug.

“Cannabis misue is not a great thing; but people do not die from it however,” Dr. Shackelford said.

Dr. Shackelford said that cannabis has been used to treat seizures by doctors since at least 1464 when it was recorded that it was used in Baghdad.

Dr. Shackelford showed movies of a child named Charlotte whom he is treating with a cannabis product. “Charlotte is laughing playing with puzzles, and dancing.” She went from having 300 seizures a week to just five a month after Shackelford began using cannabis to treat her epilepsy.

“The Mayo Clinic says that 70 percent of all doctor’s visits are for joint and back pain,” Dr. Shackelford said. Over the counter medications are used to treat pain; but that the side effects of those medication cause gastrointestinal bleeding that leads to over 100,000 people being hospitalized. Thousands die from those side effects.

Shackelford said that Canada uses cannabis to treat PTSD in its soldiers who were sent to Afghanistan. They had 15 veteran suicides in 2018. The U.S. had over 6000 in U.S.

“The government has made it difficult to do studies,” Shackelford said. “But there is evidence that cannabinoids will treat PTSD.”

“We ow it to our veterans who are dying,” Shackelford said.

“33 states have medical cannabis and 13 have recreational cannabis,” Shackelford said. “States with medical opioids have 24.8 percent lower rate of overdose death.”

Shackelford said that if all states would allow medical cannabis it would save Medicaid over a billion dollars.

“There has never been a marijuana overdose death,” Shackelford asserted.

Shackelford dismissed studies showing that youth who used marijuana had eroded white matter in their brains because they were also using alcohol which has been shown to be much more damaging to the youth’s brain white matter.

Shackelford said that he has had patients move to Colorado to get treatment, “Nobody should have to move from Alabama,” to get treatment.

“I don’t want any veteran who fought for us in Iraq or Afghanistan to be shooting themselves,” Dr. Shackelford said. “Y’all should have the same stuff that 33 other states have.”

Doctor Shackleford a world reknown medical physician, who like members of the commission, did not believe in medical cannabis- until he did the research,” lobbyist and marijuana advocate Chey Garrigan said. The research is that cannabis works and people do not die!”

“Doctor Shackleford, stated that, ‘We owe it to our Veterans, who are dying’, to make it available in a structured and regulated manner for treatments that could be beneficial with physician oversight,” Garrigan told APR.

The Medical Cannabis Study Commission is chaired by State Senator Tim Melson, R-Florence.

“We are close to the end,” Melson told the commission members.

The commission is already drafting a bill and should be through with that by December 1. They will vote on that bill in their December meeting. Whatever that final bill says, Melson is expected to introduce it in the Legislature in the 2020 Regular Session which begins on February 4.

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House

McCutcheon is in “wait and see mode” on medical marijuana bill

Brandon Moseley

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Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) last Thursday was asked by reporters where he stood on pending medical marijuana legislation.

“I am in a wait and see mode,” McCutcheon told reporters. “The sponsor of the bill has done a lot of work.”

On Tuesday, State Senator Tim Melson (R-Florence) introduced a bill to legalize tightly controlled medical cannabis. The Medical cannabis bill introduced on Tuesday is Senate Bill 165.

“We have a letter from the Attorney General,” recommending that the legislature reject the bill.

Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) is arguing that while marijuana remains a federally controlled substance the legislature should not pass a state law that would be noncompliant with federal law. Marshall believes that if medical marijuana has any medical benefit then the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be the appropriate authority to approve such legislation and the state should wait for FDA to act.

33 states already have legalized medical marijuana.

“It brings up a legal question when you get a legal opinion from the attorney general office,” McCutcheon explained. “It answers some of my questions and also on the pro and the con there were some questions raised in the legal community.”

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McCutcheon said, “That is why we are in the mode that we are in.”

Melson introduced a medical marijuana bill last year during the 2019 regular session. That bill passed the Senate; but had difficulty getting out of committee in the Alabama House of Representatives. Instead of passing medical marijuana legislation the legislature passed a bill extending Leni’s Law and Carly’s law and establishing the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission tasked with making a recommendation to the legislature.

The Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission was chaired by Sen. Melson and met monthly from August to November. In December, the commission voted in favor of a draft proposal recommending that the state allow licensed medical providers to prescribe marijuana based medications to patients with a demonstrated need. The state would create the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to regulate medical cannabis in the state. Farmers, processors, transporters, and dispensaries would have to get a license from the Commission and product would be strictly regulated.

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Despite the Commission’s recommendation, SB165 remains highly controversial in the legislature and there is expected to be considerable opposition to the bill. SB165 is 82 pages long.

SB165 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) told the Alabama Political Reporter that there will be a public hearing on SB165 on Wednesday, at 8:30 a.m. in the Alabama Statehouse room 825. Opponents and proponents will both be given the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Thursday was the fourth day of the 2020 legislative session.

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Legislature

Ophthalmologists concerned over questionable Senate Health Committee vote

Eddie Burkhalter

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A controversial call in a state Senate Health Committee vote has some who are opposed to a bill that would expand the scope of practice for optometrists seeing red. 

APR obtained a video of a portion of the Feb. 5 Senate Health Committee meeting, during which state Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, who sponsored Senate Bill 66, made a motion to give a favorable report for Senate Bill 66. 

Committee chairman Sen. Jim McClendon, R- Springville, called for a second to Whatley’s motion, to which no one could be heard on the video to have spoken up but McClendon said “I have a second” and asked that “all in favor say aye” without calling for “nays” and then declared the motion approved and closing the meeting. 

In a video several senators can be heard expressing concern over McClendon’s move, and asking that their “no” votes be counted. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, can be heard off camera saying “Record my no vote please.” 

Sen. Coleman-Madison’s is the only “nay” vote noted on the Health Committee Vote Roll Call Sheet, which McClendon signed as having passed in a 5/4 vote. 

If it becomes law the bill would allow  optometrists to expand their scope of practice to include numerous procedures that state law now only allows done by ophthalmologists, who are graduates of medical schools and who undergo lengthier training including residencies. A similar bill failed approval by the legislature last year.

APR’s Brandon Moseley reported Friday on the differences of opinion between the optometrists and the ophthalmologists about the bill. 

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Asked why he didn’t call for “nays” before closing the vote, McClendon, a retired optometrist and a co-sponsor of the bill, told APR by phone on Friday that “that’s the chairman’s prerogative.” 

McClendon said that the only written information about the transactions within a committee is the vote, and that the committee clerk, not him, notated on the vote total that Sen. Coleman-Madison was a “nay.”  

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR that every committee chairperson has the authority under Senate rules to conduct a vote as McClendon did. 

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“Typically, you get a one-time pass on that,” Ward said. “In other words, you can pull that one time during the session. You can’t do it repeatedly…It’s kind of an unspoken rule.” 

“It’s not that the chairman gets a pass,” McClendon said when told of Ward’s statement. “It’s that that chairman is in charge of the meeting.” 

Asked if it was fair to move the bill through the committee without taking a full vote on it, McClendon said “it’s the procedure. Life is not fair. Let’s face it.” 

“As someone who’s not familiar with the political process and how these things are done, it was surprising to me how the meeting transpired,” Dr. Brendan Wyatt, an ophthalmologist who spoke out against SB 66 at the Feb. 5 meeting, told APR by phone Friday. 

Wyatt said before the meeting those who opposed the bill had commitments from eight senators who said they’d vote against moving it out of committee.  

“Having the mindset that we’re in a representative government I was surprised and taken back on how that whole thing took place,” Wyatt said of the vote. 

Senate Bill 66 now rests with the Senate Rules Committee, which will determine whether the bill will move on to the special calendar for a full Senate vote. 

APR’s attempts to reach Senate Rules Committee chairman Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, and several other Health Committee members last week were unsuccessful. 

Asked if he believes the bill has a chance of passing this year, McClendon said “I’d say it’s better than last year.” 

“It’s out of the committee,” McClendon said.

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House

House passes bill to simplify annexations

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday the Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation making it simpler to annex property in overlapping police jurisdictions if both of the municipalities agree and all of the landowners agree with the annexation.

House Bill 12 is sponsored by State Representative Terri Collins, R-Decatur. The bill however was carried on the floor of the House on Thursday by Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, who was away with her family due to the sudden death of her husband, Tom Collins, from a sudden heart attack on Sunday, February 9.

Rowe said that under current law, if both of the municipalities in overlapping police jurisdictions agree, and all of the property owners are also in agreement then half of the land could be annexed this year. Half of the remaining half could enter the city limits next year, then half of the remaining one quarter could be annexed the year after that. The process could take years.

HB12 simplifies it so that all of the land in overlapping police jurisdiction, where the landowners are in agreement, could come in to the city limits of their choice as long as both of the cities or town are in agreement.

Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, said that he was voting against the bill and wanted it amended to exempt Talladega County out of it. He said that many country people were fearful of being annexed into a city and having local governments telling them that they can not build a chicken house or expand their barn. Hurst said that there was a Mayor in his county that was seeking more power and more annexations. He did not name that mayor.

Rowe assured Hurst that the property owners could not be annexed against their will under the terms of this legislation.

HB12 was passed by the Alabama House of Representatives on a vote of 83 to 4.

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The legislation now goes to the Alabama Senate for their consideration.

The Alabama House of Representatives will meet again on Tuesday, February 18. It will be the fifth day of the 2020 Legislative Session. Under the Alabama Constitution of 1901, the regular legislative session is limited to no more than thirty days.

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Legislature

Sen. Greg Reed announces ADECA grants for local law enforcement

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Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) announced today the following grants for local Law Enforcement Agencies from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). 

  • $23,682.00 to the City of Cordova for the Cordova Police Department will use to purchase properly fitted body armor, less- lethal tasers, computers and surveillance equipment. 
  • $20,786.32 to the Town of Oakman to purchase new equipment for the Oakman Police Department. 
  • $23,075.31 to the Town of Arley for the Arley Police Department to update their patrol cars and department.

Governor Kay Ivey announced the awarding of the grants this week. 

“Too often, we are reminded of the dangers our law enforcement officers face as they patrol our streets and keep our communities safe. I am pleased to announce that we have made additional funding available to help these police departments purchase necessary, new equipment,” Governor Ivey said. “We must do everything we can to ensure our officers have the best resources available just as they ensure our families and communities are safe.”

Rep. Tim Wadsworth thanked Governor Ivey and emphasized the importance of funding the local police departments. 

“I want to personally thank Governor Ivey for approving the ADECA police protection grants that were awarded to the towns of Cordova, Oakman, and Arley.  The protection of our citizens is of paramount importance to us and our children and without adequate funding our police departments cannot operate at a 100% efficiency. Further, I would like to thank Mayor Gilbert, Mayor Franks and Mayor Tyree for their leadership in working with the police chiefs to apply for these grants.  Senator Reed and I have worked hard to let police departments know when grants are available and to assist in any way we can in the process. Again, thanks to all that are involved.”

Senator Reed praised the ADECA for providing support to these Law Enforcement agencies for equipment that will ultimately be used to keep communities and law enforcement officers safer.

“I want to thank Governor Ivey and ADECA for working with us so that we can provide our police men and women with the funds they need to purchase new equipment and improve the equipment they already use. Our law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. We owe it to them to do all we can to make sure they have what they need to make their jobs easier and safer,” Reed said.

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Greg Reed represents District 5 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Walker, Fayette, Winston, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. He serves as the Senate Majority Leader.

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