Long wait drags on for patients in Alabama as Medical Cannabis hits snags
Cristi Cain still remembers the sense of hope she felt two years ago when she and her son Hardy watched Gov Kay Ivey sign the bill that legalized medical cannabis in Alabama.
“I felt like we had the momentum and had some sense of urgency,” Cain said. “That the people of Alabama needed this. That the children of Alabama needed this.”
But now the effort is mired in lawsuits, the head of the Alabama commission says it’s still not clear when the first dispensary might open and litigation could drag on for years. Meanwhile, six months after Ivey signed that bill, Mississippi approved medical marijuana and has already opened dispensaries.
When Alabama passed the law in 2021, Cain hoped her son, who has a chromosome abnormality and epilepsy, would soon get access to medical cannabis to treat his seizures and bouts of uncontrollable vomiting.
“We knew after that that it would be a bit of a journey to get it all implemented,” Cain said. “Obviously it takes time. But you know, it’s been two years since the bill was signed into law. In those two years, Hardy has probably had six, no less than six to eight hospitalizations for another issue called cyclical vomiting syndrome.”
Cain had been involved with the push for medical cannabis in Alabama since the state first started studying it in 2019. Over the years, she became one of the most vocal advocates in Alabama. And she has grown increasingly frustrated.
Her son was 8 years old when she testified in front of a legislative committee and 10 when the law passed. Hardy has used CBD Oil with some success. This summer, he turned 12.
The process to award licenses to grow, transport and dispense medical marijuana in Alabama has been fraught. The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission first announced licenses on June 10, but quickly withdrew those after it found problems with the scoring of applications. The head of the commission resigned in early August in response to a lawsuit.
On Aug. 10, members of the commission again announced that licenses had been awarded to 24 companies and could be issued by the end of the month. Some of the companies that did not receive approvals filed a lawsuit and a judge last week issued a temporary hold on all licenses.
It’s been very difficult for Cain and other families in similar situations, she said. Her son has multiple medical needs, including frequent seizures. Doctors used traditional pharmaceuticals to reduce the severity, but Cain said the drugs left her son dazed and unresponsive.
“He had lost his emotion,” Cain said. “He had no joy. He didn’t cry. It was really heartbreaking.”
Cain sought out cannabis-based CBD oil, which is legal for patients in Alabama with qualifying conditions under Leni’s Law. And it helped, she said. Her son’s seizures got shorter, and his personality came back. But the attacks still came frequently, and Cain hoped medical cannabis might offer more relief for Hardy.
The passage of the state’s Medical Cannabis law happened on Hardy’s birthday in 2021 and felt like a gift, his mom said. Even back then, some who had pushed for the law murmured that implementation could take two or three years, she said.
Still, Cain felt the state would move more quickly thanks to the urgency of supporters and the proliferation of medical cannabis programs across the country and in nearby states. Patients in Mississippi and Florida can legally purchase medical marijuana.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed medical cannabis into law on Feb. 2, 2022, more than six months after Ivey’s signing ceremony. The state’s first dispensaries opened in January 2023.
Rex Vaughn, chairman of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, said Alabama has more rules for producers and dispensaries than Mississippi.
“I think we’re going to have a much more stringent industry,” Vaughn said. “Adhering to the law and our process. I hope it goes well for Mississippi, but I don’t think they have as tight of guardrails on their industry as what Alabama will have.”
Vaughn said while the commission has recently been dealing with litigation from people in the medical cannabis industry, the members have always been focused on the well-being of Alabama patients.
“Every commission member is committed and focused on making decisions that will enable those entities involved in the production of cannabis to consistently bring a quality product to the marketplace,” Vaughn said. “Those individuals who are eagerly anticipating an opportunity to have access to medicinal cannabis have waited long enough.”
Vaughn said it’s still difficult to predict when the first dispensaries will open in Alabama. Litigation could continue for the next several years, even after the industry is up and running, he said.
According to the lawsuit filed by medical cannabis company Alabama Always, the application process was needlessly complex and riddled with technical problems.
The commission outsourced the evaluation process to the University of South Alabama and then enlisted the accounting firm KPMG to audit those scores. The lawsuit alleges that members of the commission should have used their own judgment to award licenses instead of relying upon outside groups.
“The Commissioners and their staff never visited any site to assess the applicant’s ability to cultivate, process and bring product to market in a timeline consistent with the intent behind the Act,” the lawsuit said.
Cain said she hoped Alabama regulators and businesses would try to prioritize patients as they worked out the kinks of the licensing system. Instead, the process has devolved into a nightmare, she said.
“Obviously it’s a new industry for the state so there is money to be made,” Cain said. “At the end of the day, it’s about life. It’s not about money. It’s about seeing my little boy thrive in a world where he might not otherwise.”
A hearing is scheduled next week to determine whether members of the committee violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act. If the judge sides with the commission, the state could move forward with issuing licenses. However, new legal challenges could emerge.
Officials have said dispensaries could open by the end of this year or early next year. Cain said in the meantime, she will do her best to care for her child while trying to keep state regulators focused on the needs of patients and families.
“I don’t want a pity party,” Cain said. “I just want help for my child, and I don’t want to go out of state to get it. We aren’t the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Why aren’t we asking other states for help?”