'Great burden has been lifted': Alabama medical marijuana bill headed to governor after historic votes, resistance

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would create a statewide medical marijuana program, following two historic votes and a House debate spanning more than two days.

Alabama's House of Representatives voted 68 to 34 to approve the measure, sponsored by state Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, despite a lengthy filibuster from about a half-dozen dedicated opponents that delayed a vote on the bill on Tuesday. The state Senate concurred in changes to the bill late Thursday on a 20 to 9 vote.

State Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, a longtime medical cannabis advocate who handled the bill in the House, had tears in his eyes when speaking to reporters after the House vote.

"This is just a happy day for me and a great burden has been lifted," he said.

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, wrote Thursday night that the governor "looked forward to thoroughly reviewing" the bill.

"We appreciate the debate from the Legislature on the topic," the statement said. "This is certainly an emotional issue. We are sensitive to that and will give it the diligence it deserves."

Melson's bill would authorize the use of medical cannabis for roughly a dozen conditions, including cancer, chronic pain, depression; sickle-cell anemia; terminal illnesses and HIV/AIDS. Patients would need doctor approval to use medical marijuana, which could only be obtained from special dispensaries, and would have to purchase a medical cannabis card, costing no more than $65 a year.

The bill forbids smoking, vaping, or ingesting cannabis in baked goods. It could be consumed as tablets, capsules, gelatins, or vaporized oils. The bill requires any cannabis gummies manufactured to have one flavor.

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Sen. Tim Melson watches debate on the Medical Cannabis bill in the house chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday May 6, 2021.
Sen. Tim Melson watches debate on the Medical Cannabis bill in the house chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday May 6, 2021.

Melson said last month he expected medical cannabis to be available in the state in the fall of 2022, an assessment Ball concurred with.

The vote reflected a major transformation of an issue that was once as popular in the Legislature as the Tennessee Volunteers. State Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, noted during the debate on Thursday that she had introduced a bill on the subject more than 20 years ago in honor of her son Darren Wesley 'Ato' Hall, who died from AIDS. Hall said her son struggled with AZT, then a common treatment for the disease.

"I always believed if there had been something else that he could have taken, something that he might have taken, he might be living today," she said.

The chamber added the name of Hall's son to the title of the bill after an amendment from state Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham.

Former Alabama Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, introduced a medical marijuana bill in 2013, which won that year's "Shroud Award," given to the "deadest bill" introduced in the House that session. Todd said Thursday that the passage of Carly's Law in 2014 and Leni's Law in 2016, allowing families enrolled in a UAB study to use cannabidiol oil (CBD) for their children, opened the door to the bill.

"People did not understand marijuana," Todd said. "A lot has been done since then. Obviously, passing Carly’s Law opened up the conversation about medical properties."

The Senate, which approved versions of Melson's bill in 2019 and 2020, passed the legislation with little debate in February. But the process through the House was rough. The bill went through two committees, instead of the usual one.

The House Judiciary and Health committees made changes to the legislation, mostly in distribution of money raised by the bill or conditions covered, but did not touch the core of the legislation and rejected several proposed amendments from Attorney General Steve Marshall that Melson said would have gutted the legislation.

Rep. Laura Hall is congratulated after the Medical Cannabis bill is amended to be named after her son during debate in the house chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday May 6, 2021.
Rep. Laura Hall is congratulated after the Medical Cannabis bill is amended to be named after her son during debate in the house chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday May 6, 2021.

Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, put the bill on Tuesday's House agenda. The bill passed two floor votes by comfortable margins and appeared to have wide support from Democrats and Republicans. But a small group of GOP legislators — who included state Reps. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka; Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road; Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery and Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa — filibustered to legislation for hours, hurling multiple attacks on it.

The filibuster group claimed the bill was anti-Alabamian; would open the door to recreational marijuana (which the bill bans), or had been presented too quickly to the Legislature. The attacks became entirely dilatory by the midway point of the nine-hour debate, but the roughly half-dozen legislators ended up delaying a vote on the legislation.

McCutcheon said after the Tuesday vote that there were no serious attempts to cloture the individuals. While House Republicans often cloture Democrats engaged in filibusters, they are very reluctant to do the same to other Republicans.

Thursday's debate over the bill lasted comparatively short two-and-a-half hours and there was no filibustering as there had been Tuesday. Supporters managed to keep what they considered hostile amendments off the bill, and criticized suggestions from opponents that the legislation would ban recreational marijuana. Givan claimed Thursday to have had a conversation with a "weed man" on the topic.

"This bill has no effect on them and the real weed smokers in the state of Alabama," she said.

Some Democrats said the bill should have gone further, in covered conditions; addressing inequities in marijuana prosecutions or controlling the price of medical cannabis. Alabama Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, objected to an earlier move by the House Health Committee to take PMS and menopause off the list of covered conditions.

"I am so disappointed that we have an amendment that seeks to exclude women that are 51% of the population of this country, of this state, but not in this body."

Alabama Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said poor and working people would not be able to afford medical cannabis, "just like health care for poor and working people, because they cannot afford it."

Ball acknowledged the concerns during the debate and while speaking with reporters afterward. He said the high price was due to marijuana being classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal government, as a substance with a high risk of abuse and no known medical properties. (Federal budget amendments prevent the U.S. Department of Justice from prosecuting state medical marijuana programs.)

"This is a starting place," he said. "As it becomes more and more common part of medical practice, the price will probably go down."

Follow Brian Lyman on Twitter @lyman_brian.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama lawmakers approve medical marijuana bill after historic votes