Alabamians have watched for years as neighboring states benefited from the tax revenue generated by lotteries and as patients benefited from medical marijuana. With Mississippi and Florida — the two closest border states for those on the Gulf Coast — adding both medical cannabis and lotteries, it was only natural residents of the Heart of Dixie would be curious when their state would join its Southern brethren.
Those curious got, at least, a partial answer to some of those questions May 6 when members of the Alabama House voted to advance a medical marijuana bill to Governor Kay Ivey’s desk. However, a bill to legalize gambling, sports betting and casinos has stalled in the House with one day left to debate it.
Alabama’s medical cannabis bill cleared both chambers of the Legislature Thursday and has been sent to Ivey to sign. The bill passed the House for the first time Wednesday with amendments the Senate later approved.
“As with any piece of legislation that reaches the governor’s desk, we look forward to thoroughly reviewing it,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola wrote in a statement. “We appreciate the debate from the Legislature on the topic. This is certainly an emotional issue. We are sensitive to that and will give it the diligence it deserves.”
If the bill is signed into law, Alabama would become the 37th state to legalize cannabis for medical use. Beth Lyons, a former state legislator and current Mobile-based lobbyist for the Baldwin County Association of Greenhouse Growers, said the fact Alabama waited so long could be a benefit from a regulatory standpoint.
“We had all the state laws to review,” Lyons said. “I think we have a very well-regulated industry we have created.”
The bill is one of the most strict in the country, with a limit on the number of qualifying conditions, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.
“Alabama’s bill is more on the conservative side,” O’Keefe said.
Mississippi’s law, O’Keefe said, is a bit broader. Mississippi law also passed a statewide referendum with more than 75 percent support. O’Keefe said the Magnolia State’s referendum asked voters to approve either a broader or more restrictive law and those who cast a ballot chose the broader one.
However, due to a possible problem with the signatures collected on a petition, O’Keefe said, the Mississippi law is currently being challenged in a case before the State Supreme Court.
The number of voters enthused by medical cannabis mirrors a poll conducted in 2004, showing nationwide support for medical cannabis at 75 percent.
“It’s only grown since then,” O’Keefe said. “More people now believe in medical cannabis and it’s over 90 percent. More people now support medical marijuana than believe man landed on the moon.”
Another aspect of Alabama’s bill that could limit access is the fee charged to doctors who want to recommend cannabis as a treatment, O’Keefe said. Not only do interested doctors have to pay $300 for a license, but they also have to enroll in medical cannabis education, she said.
“There’s no doubt it will give some patients dramatic relief,” O’Keefe said. “It’s way better than the status quo.”
A traditional Republican state where access is the most extensive is Oklahoma, O’Keefe said. In Oklahoma, there is no restriction on conditions and about 8 percent of the state’s population has access to medical cannabis.
“It’s the broadest in the entire country,” she said.
In other states, O’Keefe said, access is limited to 1 or 2 percent.
Although the Alabama bill would legalize cannabis to treat several ailments and was sponsored by Republican Sen. Tim Melson, a doctor, the most opposition came from his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate. While the bill rocketed through the Senate and passed on a 20-10 vote, it was met with a filibuster from about a half-dozen members of the House on Tuesday night. Opponents, whose main concerns seemed to be future relaxation of laws restricting recreational use, were able to delay a Tuesday vote by running out the clock on the legislative day.
Lyons said the bill contains a provision that specifically prohibits the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
“Some legislators seemed to think this would morph into recreational,” she said. “The Legislature might want to do that in the future, but it’s impossible now.”
Before a final vote could be taken on Thursday, the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, faced an onslaught of amendments, most of which were successfully tabled.
One came from Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, who expressed concern about the expansion of government the bill would create. Simpson asked for an amendment to automatically repeal the bill if the federal government ever reclassifies marijuana as a legal substance.
As a Schedule 1 drug, doctors can’t prescribe marijuana and pharmacies can’t dispense it. This bill, like similar laws in other states, gets around this by having specially trained doctors recommend marijuana treatments, while dispensaries sell it to patients. If marijuana’s Schedule 1 status is removed, Simpson argued, pharmacies would be allowed to dispense it, but the bill would still require patients to use dispensaries.
“This gives the Legislature a choice to do something,” Simpson said.
Simpson’s amendment avoided an initial effort by Ball to have it tabled, which allowed for representatives to debate its merits. Ball argued he would like to wait and “cross that bridge when we come to it,” as the new law wouldn’t even go into effect until 2022 at the earliest. A commission to regulate medical cannabis would have to be appointed during the Legislature’s next session.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, argued Simpson’s amendment is unnecessary because if marijuana is reclassified by the federal government, it would automatically do away with the dispensary requirement.
“If the federal government decides to reclassify marijuana, the bill unravels on its own,” England said.
House Speaker Pro-Tempore Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, spoke in favor of the medical cannabis bill and against Simpson’s amendment when he told members they should listen and trust Ball on the issue.
Following the debate — in which Ball also accused Simpson’s amendment of inadvertently trying to kill the bill and threatening to move ahead and have it removed in a conference committee of the House and Senate — members successfully tabled the amendment.
After most amendments had been tabled, the bill got a full and final vote from the House and passed 68 to 34, with one abstention. The legislation was popular among members of the local House and Senate delegations. Only Simpson and fellow Republicans Shane Stringer and Harry Shiver voted against the bill in the House. All of Mobile and Baldwin counties’ local senators voted to approve it.
The financial benefit for the state could be hard to measure. Lyons said the money raised from tax revenue for medical marijuana is meant to pay for the bill. In addition to costs associated with the creation of a new agency, Lyons said, the agriculture department and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency would be responsible for enforcing the law and the revenue would pay for those things. Thirty percent of the total would go to medical research, Lyons said, like the work being done at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
However, any additional revenue would go back into the state’s general fund budget, Lyons said; however, it is unknown how much will remain.
“It’s unclear how much will be left over,” she said. “There will be some, but it depends on how many patients there will be.”
The “fairly restrictive” number of ailments would have the effect of reducing the number of users in the state, Lyons said.
“We think there could be as many as 290,000 patients,” she said. “That’s based on the experiences of other states.”
O’Keefe said the revenue should “more than pay” for regulatory costs in Alabama. Again, though, revenue increases based upon access. Oklahoma brings in about $110 million per year in revenue through its medical marijuana program.
The state’s prohibition of smokeables and organic plant matter, also known as “flower,” could hurt those looking to sell it through legal retail channels such as a dispensary, O’Keefe said. In every state where flower is outlawed, those businesses had to start by operating in the red, she said.
“If they don’t allow the plant, they’ll go broke,” O’Keefe said of dispensaries. “It takes more money to extract it.”
Allowing patients to smoke medical cannabis allows for quicker relief of pain or other issues, said Christopher Butts, executive director of the Alabama Medical Marijuana Association.
“They’re just cutting out a huge part of the population,” he said.
Butts argued many folks who use marijuana for pain management have a hard time processing pills or edible cubes.
Lyons said those who crafted the bill took the inability to process pills into consideration and thus allowed creams to be legal. While the issue with the speed of pain relief still remains, Lyons said, a bill containing smokable cannabis would not have passed the State Legislature at this time.
“We didn’t think it could be passed,” she said. “We didn’t even bother.”
Much like medical cannabis, gambling is a debate that has long ago been settled in some of the states closest to our area.
The two states closest to Mobile and Baldwin counties — Mississippi and Florida — each have at least one form of gambling, which routinely sees residents flock to the border to hit it big.
The State Legislature’s best shot at passing a similar bill to those neighboring states came during this year’s session, with the Senate passing a bill that included a lottery, gaming and sports betting all in one.
The bill has currently stalled in the House with one legislative day remaining in the session. Debate is expected to continue May 17, after a raucous day May 6 saw a group of legislators in the lower chamber run out the clock debating what turned into a bill that would have only legalized a lottery.
Several factors were at play as legislators in favor of gambling in some form looked to vote on something that would pass the House. A number of Republicans remain staunchly against gambling legislation, while some Democrats, who are needed to pass gambling bills for this reason, are against the specific bill because it would shut down casinos already operating in less wealthy areas of the state.
“I think there’s hope for an agreement,” Lyons said. “I remain optimistic.”
Lyons said a divide also remains over where revenue from gambling might be headed. She said there’s a group that wants to see the revenue spent on Medicaid and others who see broadband internet access in rural areas of the state as a need. There are still others who would like to see more funding for education added to the bill.
As for pluses for gambling, Lyons said, it would enhance the tourism industry in the state and add jobs. The jobs, she said, would not only come from casinos, but from suppliers of the gambling industry.
As for the last-minute switch to a lottery-only bill in the House, Lyons said actions like that are not unusual. As for why the bill transformed to legalizing only a lottery, she said legislators who supported gambling got frustrated.
“Legislators were frustrated with the negotiations,” she said. “Some wanted to pass a lottery.”
While the Legislature debates the gambling bill, the state’s residents keep spending money in other places, Lyons said.
Mississippi, which has had casinos for years, but more recently passed a lottery, sold more than $111 million worth of tickets in the first quarter of 2020, according to a report from the Mississippi Lottery Corporation. After accounting for the more than $72 million allocated for prize money, the corporation took in more than $39 million in profit in that first quarter. Of the $39 million, roughly $26 million was listed as “proceeds” to the state of Mississippi.
According to the Florida Lottery, more than 1,620 Alabama residents claimed prizes greater than $600 between the beginning of 2018 and March 2019.
Of those, at least 183 were from Mobile County — including some of the state’s biggest winners.
In 2018, a Mobile resident claimed a $223,639 prize from one of Florida’s many lottery games. Another man from Wilmer took $175,000 back to Alabama.
Mississippi was the top travel-spending market in the nation in 2020 and coastal Mississippi accounted for a third of the state’s tourism-related employees, according to a 2020 statement from the Coastal Mississippi tourism board.
“Coastal Mississippi is perfectly poised to welcome visitors to a destination with an abundance of safe, enjoyable adventures, small coastal communities offering unique experiences, plenty of space to roam and Southern hospitality at its finest,” Coastal Mississippi CEO Milton Segarra said in a statement. “In fact, our research shows that intent to visit coastal Mississippi ranks higher than Pensacola, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Baton Rouge and Lake Charles [La.] over the last 18 months.”
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