By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — After the House Rules Chairman threatened to block a Senate-passed medical marijuana bill, lawmakers were working on a compromise that would take a more incremental approach and keep a existing experimental treatment program in place.
Bill sponsor Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence told Alabama Daily News that a substitute bill to create a state commission to regulate medical marijuana will get a public hearing and committee vote on Tuesday. If the bill is approved in the remaining week or two of this legislative session, that commission will make recommendations to lawmakers next year about medical marijuana laws.
“This will not set us back any time and it let’s the commission have input into the law design,” Melson said last week.
In his original bill, medical marijuana would not be available to patients until 2021.
Later, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said the panel could be more akin to a “study commission” to recommend a path forward on cannabis policies.
Earlier this month, the Andalusia Star News reported that House Rules Chairman Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said the bill wouldn’t get a vote in the House.
Last week, Jones told Alabama Daily News he had concerns about “ripple effects” of the original bill, including its possible impact on traffic laws, employment laws and state criminal codes.
“I just don’t think it’s going to happen this year because I don’t see it being totally fleshed out this year,” he said Wednesday morning.
Rep. Mike Ball, who has advocated for medical marijuana in the House, said he was comfortable that the substitute will get a vote in the House.
“I don’t see any roadblocks popping up,” he said.
Under Melson’s original Senate Bill 236, the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, a state agency, would create a patient registry system of qualified patients, issue medical cannabis cards and license the cultivation, processing, transportation, manufacturing, packaging, dispensing and sale of cannabis.
Melson said the substitute bill, the commission will meet several times before the end of the year to develop the rules of medical marijuana in Alabama and “how to keep it in patients’ hands and out of the hands of the general public.”
Melson said his substitute bill will also extend Carly’s Law as the original bill did.
“I think (Wednesday) morning, we thought it was a dead bill and we were going to get nothing,” medical marijuana advocate Dustin Chandler of Hoover said. “A step forward is better no step at all.”
Named for Chandler’s young daughter, the 2014 Carly’s Law allows the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study the cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to treat severe epileptic seizures.
Carly’s Law expires this year if lawmakers don’t act.
Senate Bill 236 passed the Senate 17-to-6 on May 9 and was referred in the House to the Health Committee. But until Wednesday, it hadn’t seen any momentum.
House Health Committee chairman Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, confirmed there would be a hearing and vote on Tuesday. He said creating the commission will allow lawmakers to work with it to tighten up a future medical marijuana bill “because we want to make sure this is truly used for those who need it.”
The original Senate-approved bill would have legalized medical marijuana for patients with about 30 qualifying conditions, including addiction, cancer, autism, epilepsy, terminal conditions and end-of-life care.
“I like this better,” Ball said about the substitute. “We get the agency in place, we get medical professionals on the commission and they’re working publicly to figure out the best way to approach this.”
If the substitute for Senate Bill 236 is approved in committee, it will still need House approval and then go back to the Senate for another vote.
The House Health Committee is scheduled to take up the bill Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. in Room 200 of the State House.