By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Going into this year’s legislative session, Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he knew the Senate would pass the medical marijuana bill he sponsored. It was the House where the bill would face a tougher vote.
But when some “solid legislators” in the House said they’d vote for his bill, Melson got hopeful.
“I’m not gonna say solid conservatives or liberals or whatever, but guys who are solid legislators,” Melson said, mentioning specifically Reps. Allen Treadaway, R-Birmingham, and Allen Farley, R-McCalla, both former law enforcement leaders, and Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, the pragmatic House budget committee chairman.
“When they realized that this wasn’t about Republican or Democrat issues, it was about taking care of people, I thought we had a good chance,” Melson said.
“… I knew then that the opposition wasn’t as strong as everyone anticipated.”
The bill to allow people with certain medical conditions access to forms of medical marijuana cleared the House on one of the final nights of the legislative session and Gov. Kay Ivey signed it into law earlier this month. Now the work begins to set up the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission. The 14 members will be appointed by July 1 and will be in charge of creating the rules, regulations and best practices for growing, cultivating, processing and selling a medical cannabis product in the state.
Medical marijuana bills have been filed in the Alabama Legislature for years, first by Democrats. Melson said helping pass the bill didn’t start out as a passion project for him this term. When a version was brought to him by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, for the 2019 session. Melson said he let it sit on his desk for weeks.
“I wasn’t a proponent of medical cannabis,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily an opponent, I just didn’t think a state like Alabama was going to be receptive.”
Ball has been working on legislation around the topic of providing alternative medical relief to Alabamians since at least 2014 with his work on passing Carly’s law and Leni’s law which allowed the use of CBD oil in the state.
Ball has said the passage of the medical marijuana bill was mostly about “hearts and minds” slowly changing on the issue.
“Every year that we delay getting help to people who need it, there are more people and more people who are suffering because of it. We’ve still got another year or so before this gets set up and cranked up, but at least we have hope now,” said Ball, who is not seeking reelection in 2022.
Opposition to the bill was well organized and high profile, including the state attorney general, the Alabama Policy Institute and about two dozen state district attorneys.
In House debate, opponents of the bill linked medical marijuana to recreational marijuana.
“What makes us think we know more than the FDA. My other thought is what if we’re wrong. What if we approve and pass this bill and it is a gateway like it has been for Colorado,” Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, said during a floor debate on the bill.
Melson says he’d likely never vote for a recreational marijuana bill and tried to keep the discussion on medical marijuana.
“I tried to focus on the science, not the emotion,” he said. “I wanted people to base support on the facts, not emotions.”
The new act is similar toTennessee’s law and borrows some from Ohio’s, Melson said.
“They paid the tuition for our education,” he said.
Melson is clear that while some individuals helped on the bill, outside groups did not.
“I had no interactions with organizations, I wanted this to be our bill, whether it passed or failed,” Melson said. He told ADN he plans to seek a third term in the Senate next year.
What’s next: The Commission
The Alabama Medical Marijuana Commission will be made up of various licensed physicians, pharmacists, agricultural experts and other experts who will help address any conflicts in the new act.
“The whole idea is to get a good commission,” said Ball. “If we get the right commission then any next steps we have to take, they will give the right guidance because it’s set up to take up people with the right expertise,” Ball said.
The governor and lieutenant governor appoint three members each, the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem each appoint two members, the Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries appoints one member and the State Health Officer appoints one member.
The Attorney General and Secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency each appoint one nonvoting member.
The Senate will have to confirm all of the commission members, but if the Legislature is not in session they can start serving pending confirmation.
Once the commission is in place, it can start taking licensee applications for cultivators, integrated facilities and processors starting Sept. 1, 2022.
The new law allows for a maximum of 12 cultivator licenses, 4 processor licenses, and 5 integrated facility licenses, or facilities that will grow, process and distribute the product all in one place.
All issues relating to patients, doctors and dispensaries will be handled by the commission.
Melson said he knows some doctors won’t become licensed prescribers. One of the staunchest opponents to the bill in the Senate was the chamber’s other medical doctor, Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia.
Those seeking medical cannabis will be able to find a list of prescribers on a yet-to-be-established website. Meanwhile, the bill restricts prescribers’ advertising. There will be no billboards or TV ads, Melson said.
The commission is also required to present a report to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2022 that gives an update on the progress towards implementing the act and make recommendations on needed changes to the law for successful implementation of medical cannabis in the state.
“It’s a structure that will work for growing and dispensing and we can grow for medical as much as we want but this will keep it from getting out of hand and turning into recreational,” Ball said.