Alabama lawmaker introduces medical marijuana bill

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The Alabama Legislature goes into session tomorrow, but already lawmakers are not shying away from controversial topics. State Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, is bringing back his medical marijuana legislation for 2021.

The legalization of medical marijuana is an issue that Melson brought up in 2019 and in 2020. Both times, the Alabama Senate narrowly passed the legislation and both times, the decriminalization of medical marijuana failed to get out of committee in the Alabama House of Representatives. This year, Melson’s bill has been pre-filed in the state Senate as Senate Bill 46.

For Alabamians with a medical affliction that they think might be treated with medical cannabis, there are no legal options other than to move to another state. SB46 would create the Compassion Act. It would authorize certain residents of Alabama diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition and designated caregivers to be registered and obtain a medical cannabis card, thereby authorizing the patient to use cannabis for medical use.

Under existing law, unlawful possession of marijuana in the first degree is a Class C or Class D felony, and unlawful possession of marijuana in the second degree is a Class A misdemeanor. Even marijuana legally prescribed by a doctor in another state is a violation of the Alabama criminal code. While dozens of states have legalized medical marijuana, if citizens of those states visit an Alabama beach or to even drive through the state with their legally prescribed medical marijuana, they are committing a crime and could potentially do jail time if caught.

SB46 would tightly regulate medical marijuana from seed to the final end-user:

“This bill would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, provide for commission membership, and impose the following duties: Establish and administer a patient registry system; issue medical cannabis cards; issue licenses for the cultivating, processing, dispensing, transporting, and testing of medical cannabis; adopt rules; impose restrictions on licensee activity; and generally regulate, administer, and enforce a medical cannabis program in the state.” 

SB46 would also:

“…require a seed-to-sale system to track all aspects of medical cannabis production, from cultivation to sale of final product. This bill would require physicians to meet certain qualifications established by rule by the State Board of Medical Examiners in order for physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients. This bill would authorize the Department of Agriculture and Industries to regulate the cultivation of cannabis for medical use.” 

Sales taxes on the sell of medical marijuana in the state would be used to establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission Fund and provide for expenditures for regulation of medical marijuana in the state. Persons who are following the letter of this law would receive certain criminal and civil immunities.

The bill would prohibit the ingestion of any raw plant material and would prohibit any smokeable or vaping product. Smoking marijuana even if you have a medical cannabis card would remain illegal in the state of Alabama.

“This bill would prevent an employee who uses medical cannabis from qualifying for workers’ compensation in certain circumstances. This bill would create the Medical Cannabis Research Consortium to provide grant monies using tax proceeds for research on cannabis and medical cannabis. This bill would provide public health and safety safeguards, including security measures, packaging and labeling requirements, and criminal background checks for licensed facility employees,” according to a summary of the bill.

The bill also severely restricts who can grow medical marijuana in the state.

Currently, the federal government has decriminalized hemp, so cannabidiol is available legally in a wide variety of products in the state. Hemp is a member of the cannabis family of plants, like marijuana, but it is low in the psychoactive component of cannabis: THC. Meanwhile, marijuana is high in THC.

Opponents of this bill argue that persons who would benefit from cannabis can already receive the relief that they want from cannabidiol, usually sold under the acronym CBD, thus there is no reason for the legalization of marijuana. Advocates argue that there are medical conditions that require the much higher THC medical marijuana product.

Chey Garrigan, the director and president of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, said that her group is committed to passing this legislation so that people with a demonstrated medical need can get the help that they need.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are already 224 bills that have been pre-filed by members of the Alabama House of Representatives and 117 bills in the state Senate.

The 2021 legislative session will be one like no other due to COVID-19 restrictions. There will be no citizens or lobbyists allowed in the galleries viewing the proceedings or packing committee rooms, or lobbying legislators in the hallways or their offices. Instead, communications will be limited to phone or email.

If a face-to-face meeting is desired, the citizen will have to ask for an appointment to meet with the legislator in a first- or second-floor room of the Statehouse that is assigned for meetings. Masks must be worn and social distancing guidelines followed. Persons who wish to speak about a bill in committee must contact the committee in advance and ask for a public hearing and to be put on the agenda as a speaker. 

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