Alabama House passes medical marijuana bill

Tray Ling

A bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana, with backing from lawmakers in both parties, has moved closer to becoming law. The Alabama House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 68-34 after about two and a half hours of debate this morning. The bill returns to the […]

A bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana, with backing from lawmakers in both parties, has moved closer to becoming law.

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 68-34 after about two and a half hours of debate this morning.

The bill returns to the Senate, which had passed it earlier. Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, the sponsor of the bill, said he will ask the Senate to concur with the House changes. If the Senate agrees, the bill would go to Gov. Kay Ivey, who could sign it into law.

Representatives had discussed the bill for about nine hours Tuesday but took no final vote as about a dozen Republican opponents of the bill spoke during a filibuster.

But there was no filibuster today. Members of the Republican majority favored the bill by a vote of 42-34. The vote by Democrats was 26-0.

The House sponsor, Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, had said he expected a vote on the bill today.

A former state trooper and state investigator, Ball wiped tears from his face as he talked about how he came to support medical marijuana and how minds have changed in the House, which in 2013 gave medical marijuana legislation the Shroud Award as the “deadest bill” of the year.

“This is just a happy day for me and a great burden has been lifted,” Ball said.

Ball said legislators tended to associate marijuana with a comedy duo that rose to fame in the 1970s with an act that was mostly about getting high.

“I knew that there was so much preconceived notion and bias about this issue,” Ball said. “And when people think of marijuana they thought of ‘Cheech and Chong.’ And so, I knew that people, in order to understand what this is about, they needed to see the people.”

Ball said that happened when parents of children suffering from severe epilepsy successfully lobbied the Legislature for the passage of Carly’s Law in 2014 and Leni’s Law in 2016 to allow the use cannabidiol, a marijuana derivative, for treatment.

Before passing the bill today, the House adopted an amendment to name it after the son of Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville. Hall sponsored a medical marijuana bill about 20 years ago because of her experiences caring for her son, who died of AIDS. On the House floor today, Hall talked about that experience and said she believed medical marijuana might have helped her son.

The House voted to rename the bill the “Darren Wesley ‘Ato’ Hall Compassion Act.”

“It doesn’t make any substantive changes to the bill, but it sure does have a sweet spirit,” Ball said in support of the amendment. The House approved the amendment 87-3.

Alabama would be the 37th state to legalize medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill would set up an intrastate system for the cultivation, processing, usage, and sales of medical cannabis. Doctors could recommend the products for a wide range of symptoms and conditions, including chronic pain, nausea and weight loss from cancer, Parkinson’s, Crohn’s, PTSD, HIV/AIDS, sickle cell, autism, Tourette’s Syndrome, and terminal illnesses.

Patients with a medical cannabis card and a doctor’s recommendation could get the products at licensed dispensaries. The law would allow up to 12 locations.

Melson is a physician and medical researcher who says Alabamians should have a chance to try medical cannabis for those conditions that haven’t been relieved by traditional medications. He said that conclusion is based on research and experiences in other states.

Opponents to the bill raised several main concerns. They say medical marijuana is not FDA-approved, that there is conflicting or incomplete information about its effectiveness, and that the bill would create bureaucracy. They also say legalizing medical marijuana would help bring about legalization of recreational marijuana in a few years. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults, according to the NCSL.

Ball and Melson both oppose recreational use.

“This is the way that medical cannabis should be dealt with in a state that has no desire to do recreational,” Ball said.

The final vote was not a surprise because several procedural votes had indicated the bill had bipartisan support. This morning, the House adopted an amendment the bill’s sponsors supported by a vote of 72-26.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, noted that the bill would not require health insurance plans to cover medical marijuana. She said that means many Alabamians won’t be able to afford it. Moore reiterated the position of the Democratic caucus on a another health care issue, support for Medicaid expansion. Alabama is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, reinforced Moore’s point about many people not being able to afford medical marijuana if it’s not covered by insurance.

“It’s not going to help the people that I represent because they’re going to still get theirs on the corner,” Rogers said.

But Rogers said he supported the bill because it would be a step toward making medical marijuana available to more people and would promote research.

Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, offered an amendment to limit the amount of a delta-9, a psychoactive chemical in marijuana, in oral doses of medical cannabis products. Ball opposed the amendment. The House approved Ball’s request to table the amendment by a vote of 53-38.

Rep. Wes Kitchens brought an amendment to make it illegal to drive with any amount of THC in the bloodstream. Ball said that was impractical because people who use CBD oil would have THC in their system. Ball opposed the amendment, and the House voted to table it at his request, 51-42.

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, offered an amendment that would require the state to revisit the medical marijuana law if the federal government removed marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs, saying it could eliminate an unnecessary bureaucracy. Ball opposed the amendment. But Ball’s motion to table it failed by a vote of 47-53. The failure of the tabling motion meant the House continued to debate Simpson’s amendment.

House President Pro Tem Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, said he had respect for those on both sides of the medical marijuana debate. But Gaston, a supporter of the bill, urged representatives to follow Ball’s guidance on the proposed amendments.

“I am of the firm opinion that we all respect Mike Ball and where he’s got us at this point I time,” Gaston said.

Ball asked for a second tabling motion on Simpson’s amendment and the vote changed. The House approved the tabling motion 60-39.

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, proposed an amendment to remove depression from the list of conditions that could be treated with medical marijuana on a recommendation from a doctor. Jones said the inclusion of depression made the list of conditions too broad because such a large number of people could be considered to suffer from some level of depression. Jones said he was following CDC guidance that a depressant, such as marijuana, should not be used to treat depression.

Ball opposed the amendment but did not try to block a vote on it. The amendment failed by a vote of 48-51.

Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, an opponent of the bill, proposed an amendment to say that if any part of the bill was found to be unconstitutional that the entire law would be invalidated. Ball moved to table the amendment. The House tabled Wingo’s amendment by a vote of 67-29.

Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, proposed an amendment to say that dispensaries would need approval of the governing body of the city or county in which they would be located. Ball did not oppose the amendment. It was approved 99-3.

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