Alabama’s journey toward a medical marijuana program has been a long and slow uphill climb. The movement has gone against the grain of the Bible Belt, patiently trying to undo years of propaganda… all while being discouraged by both lawmakers and skeptical citizens.
Because of the way Alabama’s constitution is written, the voters will never get a say on Medical Marijuana. It’s all up to the lawmakers. Convincing them to even discuss the issue has not been easy. In a very conservative red state that loves hunting, college football, Jesus and moonshine, any mention of medical marijuana is likely met with a raised eyebrow still today.
Every year since 2004, Alabama has had a Medical Marijuana bill introduced to the Legislature and every year it has failed. Six years after the first bill, in 2010, a bill came close to being voted on, but the session ended too soon.
Three years later, in 2013, the Legislators presented that year’s Medical Marijuana bill with “The Shroud Award“, a distinction reserved for the the bill least likely to pass in a session. The whole affair was supposed to be all in good-natured fun. However, while the Legislators had a good laugh, patients and activists were fuming.
The following year, 2014, was quite a different story. The legislators weren’t laughing when they found themselves face to face with newly educated parents and children with seizure disorders. All of them led there by Dustin Chandler, a father who happened to be a policeman; a man who saw a CNN special called “Weed” and wanted answers for his daughter, Carly. A bill was written and named after the girl, which the Alabama Legislature hurriedly passed as Senate Bill 174; a research bill called Carly’s Law. Unfortunately, after all the photo ops were over, the children still had to wait over a year for the first studies to begin.
It had only taken the Alabama Legislature 10 years to admit that marijuana has medicinal value.
On April 2, 2015, a comprehensive Medical Marijuana bill was filed by Senator Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) and a companion bill is expected to be filed in coming days in the House by Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham). The bill is called The Alabama Medical Marijuana Patient Safe Access Act, Senate Bill 326.
If the Safe Access Act is passed, Alabama will be breaking new ground in the South by introducing a comprehensive medical marijuana program. The bill allows for patients who suffer from any of the 25 listed conditions (or any other condition as determined by their doctor) to purchase a maximum of ten ounces of cannabis per month. The list of qualifying conditions includes:
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)/ Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
Gastrointestinal disorders, including, but not limited to, colitis, Crohns disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Persistent muscle spasms, including, but not limited to, spasms associated with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS-Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Seizures, including, but not limited to, seizures associated with epilepsy
Also included are patients suffering from persistent medical symptoms that “could cause serious harm to the patient’s safety or physical or mental health if not alleviated” as well as patients suffering from other chronic medical conditions that “substantially limits the ability of the person to conduct one or more major life activities as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”
Ron Crumpton, founder of The Alabama Safe Access Project (ASAP) introduced the bill and has been a part of introducing legislation in Alabama for seven years. “The attitude in Montgomery has changed so much since I have been doing this. I am sure the national attitude toward marijuana, Dr. Gupta and CNN have had a lot to do with it,” he said.
Reactions from supporters, patients and advocates have been both guarded and hopeful.
Chris Butts, Executive Director of the Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition, has been a public advocate in the state for the past seven years. A graduate of Oaksterdam University, the nation’s only recognized cannabis college, he speaks on the issue at various events. Butts said he fully supports this bill. “Last year’s passage of Carly’s Law was our lawmakers saying definitively that marijuana is medicine. This is their opportunity to get it right with a comprehensive medical marijuana bill and medical marijuana program that doesn’t leave sick people waiting on meaningless studies.” he said.
Eric Sharp is a medical marijuana refugee from Alabama who now lives in Colorado. Sharp moved to Colorado so his son could get treatment there, but they want to go home. “I really hope this works. I’m sick of being a refugee,” he said. “Its long overdue. They can use the taxes and money they save from putting people in jail to be spent on schools, roads and public health.”
Christie Reeder-O’Brien is an experienced activist who joined the movement in 2006. “Let’s just say it’s long overdue for a southern state to pass some form of legalization other than CBD oil with low THC. This type of legislation (CBD-only) is extremely limited… and I feel it may do more harm than good for legalization in the long run. It’s also very specific on qualifications, leaving out a majority of illnesses that have successfully been included in other states as a qualifying condition. It’s way past time for change in the southern states regarding medical marijuana.”
Loretta Nall, founder of the now defunct Alabamians for Compassionate Care and former gubernatorial candidate, issued a statement that said, in part, “The Alabama Medical Marijuana Patient Safe Access Act is a comprehensive medical marijuana bill that would provide relief to tens of thousands of Alabamians who are suffering not only from debilitating medical conditions but are also suffering from the side effects of their pharmaceutical prescription medications. Passage of this bill is critical to alleviating that unnecessary suffering. Patients in Alabama should have access to medical marijuana and not suffer discrimination based on geography. Nor should they have to uproot their families and disrupt their lives on top of being sick just to gain access to medical marijuana.” Nall founded the advocacy group in 2006, the same year she was a write-in candidate for governor of Alabama.
James Cargo, of Birmingham, is a Marine Veteran that has deployed overseas three times. He said, “Those Marine infantry years were tough on my body. I have constant pain in my back, hands, knees, and feet. Also, I fight with some mild anxiety and sleeplessness. Marijuana treats all of the symptoms that I experience, and it temporarily makes me feel great. Passing this bill will drastically improve the quality of life for myself and countless others.”
Tamara Davis Holden, from Florence, feels the same way. “I have 4 of the illnesses listed. Nothing prescribed helps. I am told I can get pain relief from marijuana and would definitely try it if passed.” she said. “I have been pretty much housebound for several years and my pain is unbearable. I suffer from Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid and Osteoarthritis, IBS.”
Robert-Tony Papoi of Gadsden also supports the use of medical marijuana. “I suffer from Secondary Lymphedema in both legs and currently there is no known cure for this medical condition, so all that can be done for me is try to reduce the swelling by wearing compression stocking during the day and special wraps at night. If that part was not bad enough, this medical condition also comes with a level of pain that I didn’t think was even possible. I am in constant pain, every single day of my life. In my personal opinion, medical marijuana should be available to those that need it. ”
Of course, Crumpton also has personal reasons for wanting to see safe, non-toxic medicine available in Alabama. “I have a nephew who has Cerebral Palsy and suffers from seizures and other problems that could be helped by marijuana.” he said. “My mother suffers from Fibromyalgia and I personally suffer from spinal stenosis and cervical spine disease. My doctors prescribed NSAIDS to try and deal with the inflammation, but they destroyed my stomach causing me to have to have emergency surgery for three perforated ulcers. That surgery ‘came apart’ and I had to have 40% of my stomach and a foot of intestine removed. So, I would stand to benefit from it too.”
Before actually getting to the Legislature there are, at the very least, six stages that the bill must go through, according to Crumpton, “It would require passage out of its primary committee (Judiciary) in both the Senate and House. It would have to go through the Rules Committee in both houses, and it would have to be voted on in both houses. Those six steps are required to pass legislation, but if different versions pass the House and Senate, there would need to be a conference committee and more floor votes.”
The fact that the bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee is encouraging, he said. “I think it could make a huge difference. Cam Ward, the chair of the committee, voted yes to pass a medical marijuana bill out of committee in 2010, and he helped keep the hyperbole down on his side of the isle. I think this is the best chance we have ever had.”
If passed by the legislature, Alabama’s medical marijuana law would take effect on the first day of the third month after the bill is signed by the Governor.
In an interview in 2014, when asked about medical marijuana, Bentley said “I do believe there are medications out there that will do the same thing. Now if someone wants to use the medicine that is in marijuana, go through the testing when you do that through the FDA, go through all of that — that’s fine. I have no problem with that.” Even though the Governor has stated that he does not favor use of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes, Crumpton said he doesn’t think the Governor will “waste political capital on this issue”.
Alabama’s medical marijuana bill is currently in the Judiciary Committee and a public hearing is scheduled on Wednesday April 22, 2015.
Here are some other details about The Alabama Medical Marijuana Patient Safe Access Act:
The Safe Access Act would establish three “recommendation classes” for physicians to use to determine how much cannabis a patient or their designated caregiver could grow, possess or purchase. This amount would depend on the severity of their illness or condition. Recommendation Class 1 would allow patients to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per month. Recommendation Class 2 patients would be allowed to purchase up to five ounces per month, and a Recommendation Class 3 patient would be allowed to purchase up to 10 ounces of cannabis per month. Considering that many prefer to cook with it, ten ounces is not an usually large amount.
Under this bill, patients could apply for a cultivation license to grow their own cannabis or would be allowed to purchase medical marijuana from regulated dispensaries and collectives. Medical marijuana sales at dispensaries would be subject to a 2.5% sales tax. There are restrictions on the number of dispensaries allowed as well. Communities with a population over 150,000 would be allowed to have two operating dispensaries, and populations between 10,000 and 150,000 would be allowed one. Dispensaries would not be allowed to open in communities with a population under 10,000. Rural counties or cities without a population large enough to qualify for a dispensary would be allowed one dispensary. As far as medicated edibles, the state Department of Agriculture and Industries would oversee the production and distribution of any edible food products and would be regulated “as the type of food or beverage being manufactured” without further restrictions.