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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Country star Amanda Shires to donate funds from single to Yellowhammer Fund

Eddie Burkhalter

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(PHOTO VIA AMANDA SHIRES/FACEBOOK)

Grammy-winning country musician Amanda Shires will donate all proceeds from a new single to the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit that provides assistance with abortions in Alabama. 

Shires and her musician husband, Jason Isbell, partnered on the single “The Problem,” which is set to be released Sept. 28, according to a press release from the Yellowhammer Fund.

The song can be purchased here

“‘The Problem’ is a song that showcases what loving support looks like through what is often an emotional time,” Shires said in a statement. “The Yellowhammer Fund offers a similar type of support to Alabamians and the Deep South. The fund provides safe options for people in a segment of America where reproductive health is very often at high risk of government interference. Everyone has the freedom to choose how to care for their own body. Individual health care decisions are difficult enough without the added pressure of stigma and ever-changing legal hurdles.”

Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of Yellowhammer Fund, said the nonprofit is thankful for Shires help, which comes at a critical time. 

“Here in the Deep South, abortion is already incredibly difficult to access, even before a new president is elected or another Supreme Court Justice is appointed,” Roberts said in a statement. “As a fellow southerner, Shires understands those difficulties as well as the negative stigma surrounding abortion. We are thankful that she wrote this song and is telling a story that’s rarely heard.”

“It feels natural to align this song with The Yellowhammer Fund,” Shires said. “Having someone in your corner, offering unconditional support when you’re making hard choices is invaluable. Together, I know we can help make a difference.”

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Roberts said at this point the best actions we can take are to go vote, donate to a local abortion fund, and stay active in the fight for reproductive justice. 

“Our abortion rights are always on the line — regardless of who is in office — and we must continue the battle to expand access to everyone, no matter what rulings or laws may be in our future,” Roberts said.

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Coronavirus task force’s Dr. Deborah Birx says Alabama should extend statewide mask order

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, met with Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris Thursday.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said Thursday that Gov. Kay Ivey should extend her statewide mask order, set to expire on Oct. 2. She also responded to a CNN report that cited those close to her as saying she’s “distressed” with the direction the White House coronavirus task force is taking and is unhappy with what she sees as her diminished role in the group. 

Birx, speaking at Auburn University, said she met with Ivey and Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris earlier in the day to discuss COVID-19 and how the state is responding.

“So we really talked about the importance of continuing mitigation,” Birx said of her talk with Ivey and state officials earlier on Thursday, adding that Ivey was one of the first governors in the South to enact a statewide mask mandate, which she said clearly decreased the spread of the disease.

Birx pointed to numbers, such as the test positivity rate, that have improved since July, but said “we’ve got to do even more.” Asked if the statewide mask mandate was one of the mitigation efforts she suggests continuing into the fall, Birx said she does. “Because if you look at what happened within two weeks of the mask mandate you can see the dramatic decline in cases here in Alabama,” Birx said. 

Birx said that when she last visited Alabama in July, the state was suffering from too many new cases of COVID-19. 

“I think when I was last here at the beginning of July, it was a very difficult time in general for Alabama. We saw nearly 95 to 100 percent of every county in Alabama, rural or urban, that had more than 10 percent test positivity to COVID-19,” Birx said, adding that today, around 20 percent of the state’s counties have positivity rates above 10 percent. 

Public health experts believe positivity rates above 5 percent mean that there isn’t enough COVID-19 testing being done and cases are likely going undetected. 

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In a statement to APR on Thursday, a spokeswoman for Ivey said Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris would provide an update on the statewide mask order ahead of its Oct. 2 expiration date. 

“It is evident that Alabamians are doing considerably well in modifying their behaviors to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and we all remain optimistic that a successful vaccine will be coming soon,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary, in a statement to APR on Thursday. “Our state’s success is largely in part to Alabamians stepping up to the plate when it comes to cooperating with the mask ordinance.” 

Maiola said Ivey is leading the way on several fronts “including getting students and teachers back in the classroom, college students returning to campus and businesses remaining open — in fact, Alabama has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates.” 

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“This success is a reality because Alabamians are wearing their masks and maintaining social distancing precautions. Governor Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris will continue closely monitoring our progress and provide an update ahead of the October 2nd expiration,” Maiola continued. 

Speaking to reporters at Auburn, Birx was also asked about a CNN report on Wednesday that cited sources close to Birx as saying she is unhappy with what she sees as her diminished role on the White House coronavirus task force, that she’s not certain how long she can serve in her position and that she is “distressed” with the direction the task force is taking. 

CNN also reported that Birx, who is no longer a fixture at White House coronavirus briefings, views Dr. Scott Atlas, a recent addition to the task force, as an unhealthy influence on President Donald Trump.

Atlas, a neuroradiologist with little experience in public health or epidemiology, has expressed support for the so-called herd immunity “strategy,” which infectious disease expert roundly dismiss as unattainable and a move that would cost millions more lives.  

Instead of being a regular presence at White House coronavirus briefings, Birx has spent recent months traveling the country and speaking with governors and university administrators about coronavirus. 

Asked Thursday about CNN’s reporting, Birx pushed back. 

“Because they wrote that without even speaking to me,” Birx said. “Do I look like a person that’s diminished?” 

CNN reported Wednesday that Birx had not responded to requests for comment on the story. 

“Yes, I have been on the road. I’ve been on the road not as a spokesperson, but on the road to really understand what’s happening across the country, to be in deep dialogue with mayors, with communities, with governors, with administration school and faculty,” Birx said. 

“I’m asked here because I am supposed to be here,” Birx said. “I haven’t been in Washington, and nor was I asked about that, but I’ve actually never been called diminished.” 

Asked if she was planning to leave the task force, Birx said, “I have strong tenacity, and I’m very resilient, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s affecting Americans, and as an American, I think I can do the best service to my country right now by serving in this role, working across the agencies, because that’s the experience that I have.” 

Asked to clarify whether she planned to step down from the task force, Birx said “no.” 

Asked if she was distressed about the direction the task force is taking, Birx said, “well that would be on me, if I was distressed, right, because I’m supposed to be coordinating the groups.” 

“So that would be an indication that I’m not doing my job, and I believe that I do my job pretty well every day. I can always learn to do better,” Birx said.

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UAB doctor urges public get flu vaccine as COVID-19 continues to spread

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Erin DeLaney, assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at UAB’s School of Medicine, speaking to reporters on Thursday. 

As the flu season nears, Alabama health care providers are encouraging the public to get flu vaccines to prevent stressing hospitals, which continue to care for COVID-19 patients. 

“We just are really encouraging everyone to go ahead and get vaccinated,” said Dr. Erin DeLaney, assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at UAB’s School of Medicine, speaking to reporters on Thursday. 

DeLaney said physicians are encouraging flu vaccinations, regular hand washing and social distancing because they’re not sure what flu and COVID could look like together.

“We know that there are other respiratory pathogens that together, combined with the influenza virus, can have poor outcomes,” DeLaney said. “And we know that the flu and COVID separately can have poor outcomes, so we’re hoping to protect as many people as we can.” 

DeLaney also discussed what will likely be the challenge for the public in attempting to determine whether they have the flu or COVID-19, which would prompt them to seek coronavirus testing.  

“Unfortunately, coronavirus and influenza, they will share a lot of the same symptoms,” DeLaney said. “The only thing that’s going to be completely different would be the loss of sense of taste and smell, is specific to COVID.” 

DeLaney said the medical community will have to rely on testing to determine between a case of influenza or COVID-19, and recommended that if a person isn’t able to get a coronavirus test they should assume they have COVID-19 and self-quarantine for 14 days. 

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Taking a clue from areas of the world that have already seen the start of the flu season, DeLaney said it appears that the spread of flu in those areas has been lighter this year, most likely because of what’s being done to protect people from COVID-19, including the wearing of masks, social distancing and regularly washing hands. 

“We are hopeful that would also be our same experience as we enter our flu season — that if people are vigilant with COVID that it would protect us from not only the flu but other respiratory pathogens as well,” DeLaney said. 

Speaking about the upcoming Halloween holiday, DeLaney said if families decide to go door-to-door with their children, eager for candy, masks should be worn. Masks that come with costumes do not provide protection, however, and DeLaney said they don’t recommend placing cloth masks over costume masks either. Medical providers are encouraging kids to wear Halloween-themed cloth masks instead. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages families giving out candy on Halloween not to put the candy in a bowl for children to reach into, but instead suggest placing candy into separate bags and to place the bags outside the home.

She also recommended other outdoor activities in lieu of door-to-door candy gathering. 

“So an outdoor pumpkin carving. Playing some Halloween music outside or having different types of activities where people are not going to be gathering closely, or not all touching the same things, would be ideal,” DeLaney said.

There have been 148,206 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alabama as of Thursday, when the state added 1,052 new cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. As of Thursday, 2,506 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19, 18 of which were added on Thursday.

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Alabama declines to release COVID-19 data associated with child care centers

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

It was unclear Tuesday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 there have been among staff, children and relatives associated with child care facilities in Alabama, because the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to release that data.

“All cases of COVID-19 are required to be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health under notifiable disease laws. ADPH is aware of cases in entities such as child care but does not report separately from other data,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, in a message to APR on Tuesday.

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Landers noted that ADPH does provide the percentage of cases among age ranges, however. There had been approximately 2,628 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children 4-years-old and younger as of Monday, according to ADPH’s dashboard, but the department doesn’t specify which of those cases are associated with child care centers, and it was unclear how many cases there have been among relatives or workers connected to child care centers.

While children 10-years-old and older can efficiently transmit COVID-19 to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent report note that “limited data are available on SARS-CoV-2 transmission from young children, particularly in child care settings.”

The Sept, 18 CDC report looked at three COVID-19 outbreaks in child care facilities in Salt Lake County, Utah, during April 1 through July 10, and found that the 12 children who contracted the disease spread it to at least 12 others outside the centers, and one parent was hospitalized with coronavirus.

In one facility, researchers confirmed five cases among workers and two among children. One of those children, aged 8 months, transmitted COVID-19 to both parents, the report notes. Many of the children had mild symptoms or none at all, researchers found.

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“COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission,” the report reads. “The infected children exposed at these three facilities had mild to no symptoms. Two of three asymptomatic children likely transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to their parents and possibly to their teachers.”

While Alabama’s Department of Public Health isn’t releasing data on cases associated with child care centers, many other states are, including Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

There have been 332 confirmed cases, two deaths and 14 separate outbreaks associated with child care centers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

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Health officials in California’s Sonoma County traced 30 cases of coronavirus to one child at a child-care center in the county, where 16 students, 11 relatives and three workers tested positive, according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to that outbreak, there have been 62 other cases at 13 child-care facilities in the county, including 27 family members, 10 workers and 25 students, with 381 cases of children younger than 17 still under investigation, the newspaper reported on Sept. 21.

Reopening child care centers can be done safely, according to an Aug. 28 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which that found that in Rhode Island, which reopened child care centers on June 1, there were just 52 confirmed and probable cases among staff, children and relatives across 29 centers between June 1 and July 31.

The report noted that Rhode Island at first limited centers to 12 or fewer students, required staff and students to not move between groups in centers and “universal use of masks for adults, daily symptom screening of adults and children, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection according to CDC guidelines.”

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on March 19 issued an order closing child care centers through April 5, with exceptions for facilities that provided services to first responders and other workers deemed essential. Harris on March 27 issued a supplemental order allowing centers that cared for 11 or fewer children to reopen.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday published a press release touting the number of open child care centers across Alabama. According to the department, 76 percent of all child care facilities in Alabama are open.

“Alabama is well on our way to reopening the necessary number of child care facilities to enable parents to return to work and resume a more normal schedule,” said Alabama DHR commissioner Nancy Buckner, in a statement. “This is the sixth survey we have conducted and each one has shown tremendous growth in the numbers of open facilities. We have worked hard to encourage child care providers to open by providing support in the form of grants and supplies.”

Asked whether the department is aware of the number of COVID-19 cases among children, staff or relatives associated with child care centers, a DHR spokesperson responded in a message to APR on Monday that “We don’t track that.”

While child care plays a critical role for working parents across the country, the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have put a strain on the businesses, according to a July 13 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which surveyed more than 5,000 child care facilities in every state.

Among the child care centers surveyed, two out of five said they would have to close without more public assistance, while half of the minority-owned centers said they have to close without more aid, according to the report. A quarter of child care workers said they’d applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of centers said they have or will begin laying off workers and/or make pay cuts.

An Aug. 26 study by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center found that 32 percent of parents polled said their child care centers were closed, 14 percent of them permanently, and 22 percent of the parents said they could not return to work in person without childcare.

Even when child care is available to parents, many are worried about sending their children back while COVID-19 continues to spread. Of those asked, 77 percent of parents said they were concerned that sending their kids back would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19.

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