Thursday, the Alabama Senate passed a bill that, if passed by the House and signed by the governor, would make Alabama the 34th state in the country to legalize medical marijuana.
Senate Bill 165 was sponsored by State Senator Tim Melson, R-Florence.
“This is a big step for Alabama,” Melson said. “But there is still a lot of work to do.”
The Senate substituted SB165 as introduced for a version that included the committee amendments.
The bill does not legalize marijuana “joints.” No smokable or vape cannabis would be allowed. Marijuana in its raw plant form would remain illegal for consumers to possess. SB165 would allow persons with a demonstrated medical need to go to a doctor who can give them a medical marijuana card to purchase cannabis in a pill or cream form from a dispensary. The marijuana would be grown and processed in the state of Alabama; and the number of approved cultivators, processors, transporters and dispensaries would be tightly controlled. The new medical cannabis industry would be regulated by the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission. The Commission would be funded by a nine percent tax on all the legal marijuana product sold in the state.
This legislation is highly controversial and was opposed on the Senate floor by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
“I am a little confused as to why we are working so fast on this,” Orr said.
Orr wanted to limit the amount of THC that Alabama doctors can authorize to 50 milligrams a day. Melson did amend the bill to limit the maximum THC that can be authorized to just 75 milligrams a day; but rejected Orr’s call for a 50 milligram a day limit.
Melson said that he got the 75mg/day standard by talking with doctors in other states who prescribe cannabis in their practices.
“Did you talk to Dr. Scott Harris?” Alabama’s Public Health Officer, Orr asked.
“He is good at what he does, but the doctors I talked to prescribe medical cannabis. That would be like talking to my barber about practicing law.?”
“I went to the people that actually treat patients,” Melson said.
“Why don’t we err on the side of going small?” Orr asked.
“I trust the physician and the patients,” Melson answered.
“Given what happened in the world of opioids I don’t know that I really trust the medical group,” Orr replied.
“You are going to always have the bad apples out there all to make the almighty dollar,” Melson admitted.
Addressing concerns that medical marijuana would lead to more workplace accidents Melson said that in states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen Workman’s compensation claims drop six percent and expected workplace fatalities dropped 2o percent.
“This is very serious business as the state considers this,” Orr said. “I think we should go slow. We have made such a mess out of opioids.”
State Senator Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, added two amendments to the bill. The first limited the integrators and the cultivators to Alabama companies. The second increased the experience needed to be an approved marijuana cultivator from eight years of farming, horticulture, gardening experience to a minimum of fifteen years.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, also got two amendments passed changing the legislation. He increased the number of approved processors allowed from three to four and the number of approved cultivators from three to four. Singleton’s second amendment set a quota of minority owned processors and cultivators of 25 percent.
“So much of this issue is about the money,” Orr said.
Melson said, “One of the largest cannabis growers in the country pulled out three weeks ago because this bill was too restrictive.”
Orr replied, “Under the Whatley amendment they couldn’t be here.”
“The Whatley amendment came after that,” Melson said.
SB165 added treatable conditions that were not included in the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission report.
“We are expanding the list because the moneyed interests have come in and said that we need to drive up demand,” Orr said sarcastically.
Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery, added an amendment that would requiring that marijuana facilities not be near any daycare facilities.
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, successfully offered an amendment that stripped the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission from having the power to add new conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis.
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, successfully offered an amendment adding menopause and PMS to the list of approved medical conditions cannabis can be used for treating.
After the Senate tabled another Orr amendment on impaired driving and marijuana, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, asked Orr: “If we let you add fifteen amendments to this bill would you vote for it?
Orr replied, “If I really wanted to stop it I could do it. We could take days of legislative days and I have enough SOB in me to do it.”
“I still don’t agree with this bill,” Orr said. “I think we will be at recreational marijuana in ten to fifteen years.” Orr said that would be a mistake.
Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, objected to the state legislature approving a federally banned schedule one drug. “It is not right for us to try to overrule a federal law.”
Orr offered an amendment decreasing the list of approved medical conditions. This amendment would strike anxiety and panic disorder. That was defeated.
“We are bypassing the FDA, we are bypassing the pharmacies, we are bypassing the process because we know better,” Orr said.
Melson told Orr, “You’re like me your momma didn’t dance and your daddy didn’t do rock n roll.”
“They did before I was born,” Orr replied. “I am going to spend an hour (speaking) on my next amendment too.”
“I am looking at an abstract from the American Psychiatric Association,” Orr said. “The American Psychiatric Association does not endorse the use of cannabis for PTSD…..I guess we are bucking the American Psychiatric Association now.”
Orr amendment number four also was rejected.
Melson reluctantly agreed to allow Orr amendment number five, which dealt with children, in order to end the quasi-filibuster that had gone on for hours.
Orr amendment number five reads: “Nothing in this chapter shall prohibit the Department of Human Resources from considering a parent or caretaker’s use of medical cannabis as a factor for determining the welfare of a child in any of the following circumstances: (1) There is evidence of child abuse or neglect. (2) The best interest of a child is determined for custody purposes. (3) A background check is performed for a prospective foster, adoptive, or kinship caretaker.”
Orr amendment number five also insert the following language: “A registered certifying physician may not lawfully recommend the use of medical cannabis with a potency greater than three percent tetrahydrocannabinol to any minor for any qualifying medical condition. A minor may not legally use medical cannabis with a potency greater than three percent tetrahydrocannabinol, whether or not the minor has a valid medical cannabis card. A parent or legal guardian of a minor who holds a medical cannabis card may not legally possess medical cannabis with a potency greater than three percent tetrahydrocannabinol, unless the parent or guardian holds a valid medical cannabis card for his or her own qualifying 5 medical condition.”
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, praised Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R), “For his strong stance on this.”
The Senate passed SB165 22 to 10.
The bill now goes to the Alabama House of Representatives for their consideration. In 2019 Melson’s much simpler medical marijuana bill also passed the Senate. The House however rejected that bill and instead substituted it with a bill that created the Medical Cannabis Study Commission.
This was the fourteenth of a maximum of thirty legislative days. There will be no meetings next week as the Alabama Legislature is taking its spring break.