Alabama Senate debates medical marijuana bill

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The Alabama Senate on Wednesday began a historic debate on medical marijuana but adjourned before taking a vote on a bill authorizing it in the state. 

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, would allow the use of medical marijuana for certain conditions if other treatments prove ineffective. A patient would need recommendations from two physicians and would have to submit to random drug testing. 

“It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue to me,” said Melson, an anesthesiologist by training. “It’s a patient issue. And when you’ve got certain patients out there that have medical conditions and they can benefit from it, I think it’s time to give them the opportunity to participate in it.”

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, speaks to reporters after a debate on his medical marijuana bill on May 8, 2019. The Alabama Senate debated the legislation but did not vote on it.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, speaks to reporters after a debate on his medical marijuana bill on May 8, 2019. The Alabama Senate debated the legislation but did not vote on it.

Attempts to legalize medical marijuana in Alabama in the past have gone no further than committee, usually due to opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement. But the Alabama Legislature in recent years has allowed limited access to cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a marijuana derivative, for those suffering seizures. Officials are also looking for methods of bringing Alabama’s opioid crisis under control; studies have suggested medical marijuana can help reduce prescriptions for opioids. 

Melson’s bill passed a procedural motion 21 to 3 but ran into a filibuster from Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, an OB/GYN. Stutts raised several issues over the bill, ranging from doctors’ training to dosing to the nature of the research justifying the use of medical marijuana. 

“I guess what I’m wanting you to convince me of is this is not a snake-oil salesman out of the back of a covered wagon, saying ‘This cures everything.’” 

The list of covered conditions includes opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and muscular conditions. The legislation would also create an 11-member commission with powers to regulate medical marijuana, as well as the ability to expand or contract the list of conditions that would be eligible for marijuana. It would also regulate those who grow marijuana for medical purposes.

Physicians would make recommendations for medical marijuana; as a non-FDA product, they could not write formal prescriptions. A patient would have to obtain a card certifying that they meet qualifications for medical cannabis.

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A Senate committee Wednesday approved a bill that would allow the use of medical marijuana

Stutts also challenged Melson on whether physicians who graduated from medical school 30 years ago would be able to properly administer medical marijuana in its proper doses. But Melson dismissed that, noting continuing education requirements for physicians. 

“When you got out (of school) you never learned how to use a robot,” he said. “15 or 20 years after you got out of medical school, you used robots to perform hysterectomies.”

The debate encompassed a wide spread of subjects. At one point, Melson noted the racist imagery used by advocates of marijuana bans in the 1930s. He also repeatedly denied Stutts' suggestions that the bill would open the door to legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. 

"There's a difference between the compassion situation and the let's-go-out-and-have-fun situation," he said.

Melson said he believed he had the votes to pass the bill, and Republican leaders throughout the day expressed optimism that they could pass the bill. But the GOP rarely if ever filibusters its own members, and Melson said he had no desire to go down that road with Stutts, who stayed at the podium until the Senate adjourned Wednesday evening. 

Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said after the Senate adjourned he wasn’t sure if the votes were there to pass the legislation. 

“Questions needed to be answered for members,” he said. “The goal was, through a certain amount of debate, to get answers.”

The bill was carried over to the call of the chair, meaning it could come up again. Melson said “we’ll work it out and we’ll get a vote on it.” The bill would still need House approval if it passed the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday narrowly rejected a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

“It’s time,” Melson said. “There’s a lot of literature out there that shows that this works, so why not give it a chance?”

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