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Medical marijuana bill passes the Senate

Brandon Moseley

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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.

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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.

 

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Health

Birmingham’s mask ordinance to expire Friday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham’s ordinance requiring citizens to wear masks while in public is set to expire Friday. 

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in a statement Tuesday cautioned the public against letting their guard down, however, and said despite the expiration of the ordinance, the public should continue to wear masks while out to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The City of Birmingham implemented the mandatory face covering ordinance as an additional level of protection as the state began the phased re-opening process. I want to thank the people of Birmingham for following the law. The ordinance raised the level of awareness to the importance of wearing a face covering when in public and within six feet of other people,” Woodfin said in the statement. “While the ordinance is set to expire on Friday, we must not let our guard down. Public health leaders say covering your nose and mouth is a critical tool to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. I urge everyone to keep social distancing, wear face coverings in public, and do what you can to limit the spread.” 

City employees and guests to city facilities will still be required to wear face coverings after the ordinance expires Friday, according to Woodfin’s statement.

The Birmingham City Council, with one dissenting vote, approved the ordinance on April 28  requiring the wearing of masks while in public, which went into effect May 1. Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in city jail. Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in city jail. 

The ordinance had been set to expire May 15, but City Council members later agreed to extend the measure until May 29. 

The Birmingham City Council’s decision to require the wearing of masks came after Gov. Kay Ivey replaced her “stay-at-home” order with a less restrictive “safer-at-home” order, which allowed some businesses to reopen with social-distancing restrictions.

The number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus across Alabama last week was higher than during any other week since the pandemic began and increase faster than in 46 other states and the District of Columbia, according to an APR analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, because of the virus’s approximately two-week incubation period when a person could have coronavirus but show no symptoms, people should practice social distancing by keeping 6 feet from others and wear face masks while in public.

Doing so not only helps protect the wearer of the mask, but also all those around them. 

“It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus,” the CDC’s website states.  “CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | With COVID-19 policy, don’t blame your umbrella. The rain got you wet

Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, and Ellen Eaton, M.D.

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Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, is an assistant professor of health services administration and Ellen Eaton, M.D., is an assistant professor of infectious diseases.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this perspective are those of the authors.


As states re-open for business, many governors cite the devastating impact of physical distancing policies on local and state economies. Concerns have reached a fever pitch. Many Americans believe the risk of restrictive policies limiting business and social events outweighs the benefit of containing the spread of COVID-19.

But the proposed solution to bolster the economy — re-opening businesses, restaurants and even athletic events — does not address the source of the problem.

A closer look at the origins of our economic distress reminds us that it is COVID-19, not shelter-in-place policy, that is the real culprit. And until we have real solutions to this devastating illness, the threat of economic fallout persists.

Hastily transitioning from stay-at-home to safer-at-home policy is akin to throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet.

The novelty of this virus means there are limited strategies to prevent or treat it. Since humans have no immunity to it, and to date, there are no approved vaccines and only limited treatments, we need to leverage the one major tool at our disposal currently: public health practices including physical distancing, hand-washing and masks.

As early hot spots like New York experienced alarming death tolls, states in the Midwest and South benefited from their lessons learned.

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Indeed, following aggressive mandates around physical distancing, the number of cases and hospitalizations observed across the U.S. were initially lower than projected. Similarly, the use of masks has been associated with a reduction in cases globally.

As the death toll surpasses 100,000, the U.S. is reeling from COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. In addition, the U.S. has turned its attention to “hot spots” in Southern states that have an older, sicker and poorer population. And to date, minority and impoverished patients bear the brunt of COVID-19 in the South.

Following the first COVID-19 case in Alabama on March 13, the state has experienced 14,730 confirmed cases, 1,629 hospitalizations and 562 deaths, according to health department data as of Monday afternoon.

Rural areas face an impossible task as many lack a robust health care infrastructure to contend with outbreaks, especially in the wake of recent hospital closures. And severe weather events like tornadoes threaten to divert scarce resources to competing emergencies.

Because public health interventions are the only effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, all but essential businesses were shuttered in many states. State governments are struggling to process the revenue shortfalls and record surge in unemployment claims that have resulted.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, allocated $150 billion to state governments, with a minimum of $1.25 billion per state. Because the funds were distributed according to population size, 21 states with smaller populations received the minimum of $1.25 billion.

Although states with larger populations, such as Alabama and Louisiana, received higher appropriations in absolute terms, they received less in relative terms given their COVID-19 related medical and financial strain: the CARES Act appropriations do not align resources with state need.

As unemployment trust funds rapidly deplete, these states have a perverse incentive to reopen the economy.

Unemployment claimants who do not return to work due to COVID-19 fears, per the Alabama Department of Labor, can be disqualified from benefits, perpetuating the myth of welfare fraud to vilify those in need.

The United States Department of Labor also emphasized that unemployment fraud is a “top priority” in guidance to states recently.

Prematurely opening the economy before a sustained decline in transmission is likely to refuel the pandemic and, therefore, prolong the recession. Moreover, it compromises the health of those who rely most heavily on public benefits to safely stay home and flatten the curve.

Some would counter this is precisely why we should reopen — for the most vulnerable, who were disproportionately impacted by stay-at-home orders.

The sad reality, however, is that long-standing barriers for vulnerable workers in access to health care, paid sick leave and social mobility pre-date this crisis and persist. And we know that many vulnerable Americans work on the frontlines of foodservice and health care support where the risk from COVID-19 is heightened.

A return to the status quo without addressing this systemic disadvantage will only perpetuate, rather than improve, these unjust social and economic conditions.

COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in our state and nation, and re-opening businesses will not provide a simple solution to our complex economic problems.

No one would toss out their umbrella after several sunny days so why should America abandon public health measures now? After all, rain is unpredictable and inevitable just like the current COVID-19 crisis.

The threat of COVID-19 resurgence will persist until we have effective preventive and treatment options for this novel infectious disease.

So let’s not blame or, worse, discard the umbrella. Instead, peek out cautiously, survey the sky and start planning now to protect the vulnerable, who will be the first to get wet.

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Health

New COVID cases in Alabama increasing faster than 46 other states

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama reported more cases of COVID-19 last week than any other week since the pandemic began, and the increase in new cases reported last week compared to the previous week was higher than 46 other states and the District of Columbia.

An analysis of data collected by The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the pandemic, shows that only West Virginia, Maine and South Carolina reported a larger increase in new cases last week compared to the new cases they reported in the previous week.

According to The COVID Tracking Project’s data, Alabama recorded 2,556 new cases during the week ending Sunday, May 24, compared to 1,994 new cases during the previous week ending Sunday, May 17.  That’s an increase of 28 percent.

The Alabama Department of Public Health’s daily case totals show an increase of 17 percent last week over the previous week, which is still higher than 38 other states, according to the analysis performed on The COVID Tracking Project’s data.

COVID Tracking Project has a standardized method of capturing each state’s new cases from health departments, making it possible to compare the trajectories of each state. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia saw new cases decline last week, while 25 states saw new cases increase last week compared to the previous week.

Compared to other states, testing showed no similar increase. The number of new tests reported in Alabama last week only grew 2 percent compared to the previous week, according to the COVID Tracking Project’s data. That’s lower than 31 other states.

APR‘s data showed an increase of 13 percent over the previous week, but that is still a smaller increase than 25 other states. Both our data and an analysis of The COVIDTracking Project’s data show the percent of total tests that are positive rose last week compared to the previous week.

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The Alabama Department of Public Health does not provide historical data for how many tests were performed on each day. Both APR and the COVID Tracking Project calculate test increases by tracking the change to the cumulative total of tests performed.

Several other Southern states also saw rising cases and no similar increase to tests performed. In Mississippi, new cases rose by 9 percent last week compared to the previous week while tests per week fell by 21 percent. In Tennessee, new cases rose 15 percent while tests per week declined 8 percent.

Georgia saw new cases rise 21 percent, but tests also rose by 22 percent. Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina also reported both rising cases and more tests compared to the previous week.

Cases have been rising in Alabama since the beginning of the month. Testing has also increased, and public health officials, including State Health Officer Dr. Harris, have said they are not sure if the increase in cases is directly attributable to more tests or more disease.

Some areas of the state, like Madison County and Lee County, have seen little or no rise in new cases, while others, like Montgomery County and Tuscaloosa County, are experiencing worsening outbreaks.

Gov. Kay Ivey lifted the state’s stay-at-home order on April 30 and has since relaxed restrictions twice more, saying the economics of the pandemic must be addressed. The state reported an unemployment rate of 12.9 percent last week, higher than during any point during the Great Recession.

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Economy

Talladega will hold GEICO 500 on June 21 without fans in the stands

Brandon Moseley

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The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has announced that the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 automobile races have all been rescheduled for the weekend of June 20 to 21.

They will be raced without fans in attendance.

“We are excited that NASCAR has announced the rescheduling of our April race weekend to June 20-21,” said Talladega Superspeedway President Brian Crichton. “While we will have cars on track, in the interest of the health and safety of all involved, including fans, NASCAR will be running our three races – the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 – without fans in attendance in accordance with the State of Alabama, CDC and public health agency standards and protocols.”

The Cup Series GEICO 500 will be held on Sunday, June at 2:00 pm CST.

The Xfinity series MoneyLion 300 will be held on Saturday, June 20 at 4:30 pm CST.

The ARCA series General Tire 200 will be held on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 1:00 pm CST.

“NASCAR, like Talladega Superspeedway, prides itself in being fan-friendly, and the fans drive everything we do,” Crichton said. “The decision to race without fans is focused on the long-term health of you and our sport. NASCAR has a great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition, and after thorough collaboration with public officials, medical experts and state and federal officials, NASCAR has implemented a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of the competitors and surrounding communities.”

“For our June 20-21 events, we hope you will enjoy watching and listening to the 3- and 4-wide racing at the sport’s Biggest and Most Competitive track via our broadcast partners FOX, FS1 and MRN Radio,” Crichton concluded. “We will persevere through this together.”

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Ticketholders may elect to receive a credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20 percent of total amount paid to apply towards a future event, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, infield, camping, fan hospitality, and Talladega Garage Experience. The 120 percemt event credit can be used in a single transaction during the remainder of the 2020 season and entire 2021 season for a NASCAR sanctioned event at any NASCAR-owned track, subject to availability. Elections for an event credit or refund must be submitted by June 14, 2020.
Ticketholders may apply here:
https://www.talladegasuperspeedway.com/Vanity-Pages/2020/Assistance.aspx

Motorsports are the only major pro sports league that has resumed play after the coronavirus global pandemic struck in mid-March. The NBA is considering a proposal to playout the remainder of their season and playoffs sequestered at the Wide World of Sports complex at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida with no fans present. The NHL is in the process of considering a similar proposal to finish this year’s hockey season. Major League Baseball has not played a single game of their season yet. MLB owners have made a proposal that the league play an 80 game season without fans present. The idea is meeting with skepticism from MLB players due to a controversial proposal capping players salaries for this season in a 50:50 revenue sharing agreement. The proposal that would dramatically reduce MLB players’ salaries for this season. Horse racing and mixed martial arts have held some sporting events in recent weeks.

NASCAR has already held two races at Darlington and one at Charlotte after resuming racing on May 17. Kevin Harvik won the Real Heroes 400 driving a Ford and Denny Hamlin won the Toyota 500 driving a Toyota in the first two Cup Series races since NASCAR resumed racing after a ten week hiatus. NASCAR intends to run a 36 race season this year.

Motorsports are the only major professional sports league played at a major league level in the state of Alabama. In addition to the Talladega Superspeedway, the state is also home to the Barber Motorsports Parks near Leeds. The Barber facility hosts both professional motorcycle racing and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a NTT Indycar series event. That event was cancelled due to efforts to shut down the economy to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has already killed 98,705 Americans through Sunday morning.

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