The debate begins: Medical marijuana bill expected in Alabama Senate committee Wednesday – Montgomery Advertiser

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Round 1 of the fight over medical marijuana in Alabama will take place on Wednesday. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing — and a potential vote — on legislation filed by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, that would create a system to cultivate and distribute medical cannabis for treatment for approximately 15 different medical conditions. 

Similar legislation passed the Senate last year but was rewritten in the House of Representatives as a study commission bill. The bill has support within the Senate but must overcome the wariness of the Alabama House speaker and the opposition of Alabama’s attorney general. 

“The committee’s my hurdle right now,” Melson said on Thursday. “I can’t look at the end of the track until I cross the next one.”

Under Melson’s bill, medical cannabis would available to anyone 19 years or older who a physician certifies as having a qualifying medical condition by a physician. Patients 18 or younger would need a parent or guardian to administer cannabis. The patient would have to apply for a medical cannabis card, which would cost no more than $65. 

The bill would also create an Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, which would oversee a patient registry and license medical cannabis facilities in the state. The Department of Agriculture and Industries would develop rules on the cultivation of marijuana in Alabama; the bill requires cultivators to have resided in the state for at least eight years. 

Conditions covered under the bill include anxiety, autism, cancer-related illnesses, Crohn’s Disease, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, HIV/AIDS-related nausea or weight loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, Tourette’s Syndrome, and conditions causing chronic or intractable pain.

The bill would forbid smoking, vaping, or consuming medical cannabis in baked or infused products. Patients would be able to consume cannabis as a tablet, in oil, in an inhaler or in glycerin. Melson said that provision was to address concerns about children consuming cannabis in cookies or candy. 

Attorney General Steve Marshall has come out in opposition to the bill. Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said in a phone interview Thursday the state’s district attorneys oppose the legislation, due to concerns of dosage, enforcement, regulation, and the potential for forgeries of prescriptions. Matson also said there were concerns about including conditions like anxiety and insomnia on the list of covered conditions, suggesting those were so widespread they could open a door to recreational marijuana. 

Matson did leave the door open to negotiation. 

“Maybe we can work through those,” he said. “I’m optimistic. Until then, we’re in opposition until we can get a grasp on what the bill is.”

Melson has said the results of cannabidiol (CBD) studies at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) turned him from opposition to support for the measure. In 2014, the Alabama Legislature approved Carly’s Law, authorizing studies of CBD and their impact on children suffering seizures. The lead investigator in the trial said in 2018 that there had been a “highly significant” reduction in seizures for children given CBD. 

“Four years ago, I wouldn’t have carried this bill,” Melson said, adding that seeing the recovery of children given the CBD oil had encouraged him.

Individuals who use marijuana spoke before a meeting of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission in November. Several said marijuana was the only way they could manage recurrent pain. Melson’s bill says it is not intended to bring recreational marijuana to the state.

More: At medical cannabis commission meeting, stories of pain and pleas for relief

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he planned to hold a public hearing with testimony from four witnesses for the bill and four witnesses against. He said the legal liability issues involved worker’s compensations and immunity provisions. 

“If they get that worked out, he’s probably got the votes,” Ward said. “If they don’t get the legal liability, they’re going to have to carry it over.”

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Thursday Marshall’s opposition was a hurdle for the bill, as were questions about federal law. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still lists marijuana with heroin and other drugs as having a high potential for abuse and lacking accepted medical treatment, though the 2014 Rohrbacher-Farr amendment allows states to pursue medical cannabis programs.

“I’m in a wait-and-see mode,” McCutcheon said. “I want to see what the Senate comes up with, and how they address the bill and the wording of the bill.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he thought Melson’s bill had a “fair chance of being seen on the floor of both houses.”

“I was a yes vote last year,” Marsh said. “If it’s constructed very similar to the bill last year, I would still be a yes vote.”

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or blyman@gannett.com.

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