A Senate-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in Alabama cleared a key House committee on Wednesday, but not before members also approved a number of amendments to the proposal.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R), would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The Senate approved the proposal last month, and now the House Judiciary Committee has advanced it in voice vote.
The measure will now head to the House Health Committee before moving to the floor.
Melson is the same lawmaker who sponsored a similar bill that was approved by the full Senate last year but which later died without a House vote amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This latest proposal would establish an Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to implement regulations and oversee licensing.
To qualify for the program, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers.
The Judiciary Committee approved 10 amendments on Wednesday. Here’s what they would do:
-Require regulators to hold a local public hearing before issuing a marijuana business license.
-Eliminate reciprocity for out-of-state patients, meaning those approved for medical cannabis outside of Alabama would not have their recommendations accepted in the state.
-Allow a state health officer to appoint one member to the cannabis regulatory commission.
-Reduce the percentage of marijuana tax revenue that would go to cannabis research from 30 to 15 percent.
-Require a review of the state’s contract for a seed-to-sale tracking company every five years.
-Allow all licensed physicians and pharmacists to have access to the seed-to-sale tracking and patient databases.
-Let municipalities hold votes to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses in their areas. Counties could make the same determination for unincorporated regions.
-Clarify the definition of who constitutes a cannabis caregiver with respect to age and relationship to the patient.
-Clarify that the bill’s “intent” is to create a medical marijuana program and should not be interpreted as an opening for recreational legalization.
-Add transparency requirements for cannabis business applicants.
Advocates say they’re encouraged that medical cannabis reform is advancing in Alabama, but they’ve raised concerns about a number of aspects of the bill.
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One problematic provision, advocates say, is that patients with chronic or intractable pain could only be recommended medical marijuana in cases where “conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or has proved ineffective.”
The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.
Patients would be allowed to purchase and possess up to “70 daily dosages of medical cannabis.” Under an amendment approved on the Senate floor, the maximum daily dose was reduced from 75 to 50 milligrams. However, the amendment’s sponsor said it could be increased to 75 milligrams in some circumstances.
The revision also calls for a label on marijuana products to indicate that cannabis can cause drowsiness.
It also calls for a nine percent gross proceeds tax on medical marijuana sales. After covering implementation costs, 60 percent of revenue would go to the state’s general fund and 30 percent would go to research into the medical potential of cannabis.
Patients, caregivers and and medical cannabis businesses would receive legal protections under the proposal, preventing them from being penalized for activities authorized by the state.
For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.
Under the bill, regulators would be tasked with developing restrictions on advertising and setting quality control standards. Seed-to-sale tracking and laboratory testing would be mandated.
Other changes approved in the Senate would add language to stipulate that gelatinous cannabis products cannot be sugar coated and insert provisions promoting good manufacturing practices and tamper-evident packaging.
Applications for cannabis business licenses would have to be accepted starting September 1, 2022 and then proceeded within 60 days.
The commission would be required to approve at least four cultivators, up to four processors, up to four dispensaries for the first year of implementation (more could be approved after that point depending on demand) and as many as five vertically integrated operators.
This bill’s reintroduction has been greatly anticipated by advocates. The Senate approved a separate medical cannabis bill in 2019, but the House later severely compromised it. The legislation as enacted would not have legalized patient access; rather, it set up a study commission to explore the issue and make recommendations.
The commission came back with its report in December 2019, with members recommending that medical marijuana be legalized.
There could be additional pressure on the legislature to enact legalization given that voters in neighboring Mississippi approved a medical cannabis reform initiative during the November election.
Separately, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill at the beginning of the month to decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of cannabis, making it punishable by a $250 fine without the threat of jail time.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.