By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature’s new version of a medical marijuana bill wouldn’t legalize its use, but sets up a study commission to make recommendations for the 2020 legislative session.
An original version of Senate Bill 236 would have legalized medical marijuana for people with about 30 medical conditions. It was approved in the Senate earlier in the session, but met opposition in the House.
“It’s a big step and everybody is stepping out of their comfort zone, asking that a Schedule I drug be given to patients,” bill sponsor Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said Wednesday after the scaled-back substitute cleared the House Health Committee.
The 15-members of the commission would be appointed by state officials. They’d have at least three public hearings around the state and make policy suggestions to lawmakers in December.
“There are a lot of people out there that need it,” Melson said. “Whether it is oncology patients or multiple sclerosis or ALS … it’s just worth it to try to give them a chance.”
The commission must include four physicians, including an oncologist, a pharmacist, an agriculture crop development expert, someone with a background in mental health or substance abuse counseling and treatment, a district attorney, a criminal defense attorney and an attorney specializing in employment law.
Melson wanted to pay commission members $350 each day they work, saying he wanted well-qualified experts. Health Committee member Rep. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, opposed that payment because some other state commission members aren’t paid. Committee members agreed.
“We have many task forces and study groups that don’t get paid $350 per diem, so I thought this was the fair thing to do,” Weaver said. “This just brings it down and levels the playing field.”
The bill also extends Carly’s Law until July 1, 2020. The 2014 Carly’s Law allows the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study the cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to treat severe epileptic seizures.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said “it’s a good possibility” the bill will get a vote in the House today. It would then go back to the Senate for possible final passage. Thursday could be the last day of the legislative session.
Supporters of the bill called the vote Wednesday progress.
“It’s our expectation that the commission will come up with legislation for 2020,” said Hoover resident Dustin Chandler, who has advocated legalizing medical marijuana. “We’re just hoping that they can come with the legislation that gets people who are suffering safe access to medical cannabis. It can be done.”
In Melson’s original bill, medical marijuana would not be available to patients until 2021. He said that’s still possible in the new legislation.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, had sponsored his own medical marijuana bill at the beginning of this session but said he likes the substitute.
“What we wanted to do was to get people who know more about [cannabias] than we do, to figure out how we need to implement it,” Ball said.
Ball said that he is confident the bill will pass out of the House in its current form.
“There is overwhelming evidence that is growing every day that this has medicinal value and can ease people’s pain, so the question of whether or not we should do it really isn’t the question, it’s what’s the best way to implement it,” Ball said.
House Health Committee member Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, voted to advance the bill and said that he likes that it opens up the possibility for further progress regarding medical marijuana in the future.
“It sets us up for what possibilities could be good for Alabama,” Rafferty said. “We’ll have a more informed position on this now, so I think that will set us up better down the road for more possibilities when dealing with medical marijuana.”
Rep. Craig Lipscomb, R-Gadsden, is also a member of the House Health Committee and supported the updated bill. He said he likes how the bill allows for more time to flesh out any concerns before passing a full medical marijuana legalization bill.
“This is not something that should be rushed,” Lipscomb said. “Other states have rushed it and they are now seeing some pitfalls of that. I think the compromise they came up with was the right approach because the authority we are creating can take the next year, study the issue, and see what the right policy should be. To me that’s better than rushing to pass a bill.”
If approved in the House, the changed bill will need to return to the Senate for approval. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the new version is “prudent.”
“My hope is that when it comes up here, we’ll concur,” Marsh said. “It puts off any kind of passage another year, but we’ll have more information in hand to make those decisions.”
The original bill passed the Senate earlier this month on 17-6 vote. About a dozen senators didn’t vote.
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, was not on the floor for that vote. He said he needs more information before he’d vote to allow for medical marijuana.
“It’s a huge issue, we do not understand or realize the long-term effects of what marijuana could do, not even to the healthy or to the ill,” Allen said on Tuesday. “I know that some early research has shown that medical marijuana does aid those with severe health issues. I think a study commission is appropriate and one that maybe we can learn some things from to possibly consider it next session.”
Asked if medical marijuana legalization by lawmakers in 2020 might be a big lift, Melson said: “Is there any bill down here that’s not a big lift?”