A key Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill to legalize medical marijuana, sending it to the full floor for consideration.
The legislation, introduced last week by Sen. Tim Melson (R), would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes. It cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 8-3 after a very brief discussion and now heads to the full chamber.
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 11-member 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.
#JUSTIN The medical marijuana bill passed the committee 8-3. Now heads to the Senate floor.
— Lydia Nusbaum (@LydiaNusbaum) February 3, 2021
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, they 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.
“It’s encouraging to see lawmakers making progress towards legalizing medical marijuana in Alabama,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “It is morally wrong to continue to treat Alabamans who suffer from serious medical conditions as criminals for using a substance that is now legal in 36 states. However, we urge lawmakers to revise the provisions of the bill that create significant barriers for patients and their physicians.”
Patients would be allowed to purchase and possess up to “70 daily dosages of medical cannabis.” The commission would determine what that limit is, but it could not exceed 75 milligrams per dose.
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.
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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.
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.
Many of the provisions are consistent with what the Senate approved in March 2020. But given the splurge of amendments that were introduced as it moved through that chamber in the last session, more revisions could be proposed as the bill advances this year.
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.
The Senate’s president voted against medical cannabis in 2020 but said he is open to letting the issue advance again in the new session. Meanwhile, the House speaker said that “if the bill comes up and it has proper restrictions in it, then I’m open to at least debating it.”
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.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in other traditionally conservative states—such as Kentucky and South Carolina—are positioned to potentially advance medical cannabis this year as a number of other states consider broader recreational marijuana legalization.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.