An Alabama House committee on Wednesday amended a medical marijuana legalization bill that already passed the Senate. Members also took public testimony in advance of an expected Thursday vote to send the revised legislation to the House floor.
This hearing of the House Health Committee comes one week after a separate panel in the body amended and cleared the bill.
Sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R), the legislation would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The full Senate approved the bill last month.
“I just want to take [cannabis] to the patients that need it. I want to see people get relief,” the senator said at the meeting. He also made the case that allowing legal access can mitigate opioid overdose deaths.
Melson is the same lawmaker who sponsored similar legislation that was approved by the full Senate last year but which later died without any House votes 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 House Judiciary Committee approved 10 amendments to the legislation during last week’s hearing. For example, members agreed to scrap provisions providing reciprocity for out-of-state patients and reducing the percentage of marijuana tax revenue that would go to cannabis research from 30 to 15 percent.
Those amendments were integrated into a new substitute version of the bill adopted by the Health panel, with additional revisions such as removing anxiety and adding depression and Parkinson’s disease as qualifying conditions for medical cannabis. The committee voted to accept the substitute version for consideration before going into testimony.
Time was evenly divided between supporters and opponents. By and large, the conversation revolved around personal anecdotes about the medical benefits and risks of marijuana.
More amendments were added following the testimony. One change would add an annual registration fee for physicians who recommend cannabis. Another would give the state attorney general’s office access to a patient registry database.
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Members further approved an amendment to remove fibromyalgia and menopause from the list of qualifying conditions and another to expand the number of institutions that are eligible for grants to research marijuana. A revision to develop a uniform flavor for all cannabis products was also accepted.
Additionally, an amendment was approved to require dispensaries to have 24-hour security cameras operating in their facilities. These changes are all being added to a new substitute that the panel will take up and vote on Thursday.
Because the proposal has been amended, it would go back to the Senate for final consideration if it’s passed in the House before being sent to the governor’s desk.
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.
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.
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 last 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 Philip Steffan.