Photo | Shane Rice
Three-year-old Leni Young, the victim of a stroke in utero, had listened to the Disney movie “Frozen” many times in her life. But it wasn’t until beginning treatment with medical cannabis that Leni could lift her head and watch Queen Elsa and Princess Anna for the first time.
“It was miraculous,” Amy Young, her mother, said. “It was wild. Still, right now, thinking about it, it is hard to wrap your head around it.”
Leni, now 9 years old, continues to battle a spate of medical issues stemming from that prenatal stroke. The stroke destroyed 85 percent of her brain, and she was born with only a small portion of her frontal lobe intact. While she remains non-ambulatory and non-verbal, one of the most life-altering challenges for the young Alabama girl was the seizures that began when Leni was about 7 months old, which were a result of the stroke and brain damage, her mother said.
Doctors at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham put her on high doses of pharmaceuticals, like Klonopin, but nothing worked, according to her mother. Doctors had suggested “letting her go,” but the Youngs were determined to not give up.
“She was having seizures hundreds of times per day,” Amy said. “She was our teeny, tiny, beautiful little girl. We kept trying, kept looking. There has got to be something.”
Amy said the family found other families going through similar ordeals and they teamed up to try and help Alabama loosen its medical cannabis prohibitions.
“We wanted an opportunity to try it,” she said. “We couldn’t even try it.”
Even after the group helped get Carly’s Law passed through the Alabama Legislature, which allowed The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to study the impact of marijuana-derived oils, it was a year later before a study actually came to fruition. The only problem for the Youngs was Leni was not eligible because she wasn’t on enough pharmaceuticals at the time, Amy said. She was on three and needed to have been on four.
In 2015, the Youngs, who had two older children in college and one in elementary school, in addition to Leni, made the decision to move from Wetumpka to just outside Portland, Oregon, to legally obtain medical cannabis for their youngest child.
“We would not have left without the support of Leni’s medical team,” Amy said. “We still didn’t know if it was going to work.”
At the time, medical cannabis was legal in Oregon, but it had not yet been legalized for recreational use.
“There was still a very small medical cannabis community there,” Amy said.
Leni had always had trouble focusing, but within minutes of her first small dose of cannabis oil, the then 3-year-old was more alert, her mother said.
“Twenty to 30 minutes after the first dose, she could focus,” Amy said. “She could track us with her eyes.”
Leni would take “itsy, bitsy” doses of cannabis oil, about a third of a milliliter, three times per day to calm her symptoms. Within “several months,” Amy said, Leni’s seizures began to “dwindle.” A week after that first dose is when Young posted the video of her daughter watching “Frozen” for the first time. The video inspired Republican State Rep. Mike Ball to work harder to pass medical marijuana legislation in Alabama, he said. Earlier this year, he and GOP State Sen. Tim Melson were right on the cusp of doing that.
Medical marijuana bills
Ball, a former law enforcement official from Madison, wanted his initial effort in regulating medical cannabis, called Carly’s Law, to have more teeth, but as the bill made its way through the legislative process, the attempt to decriminalize medical users turned into a UAB study on the impact of cannabis-infused oil.
“It’s not a political issue for me,” Ball said. “It’s very much a spiritual issue.”
But for many of his colleagues, Ball said, Carly’s Law was a political issue, and debate over it raged during an election year, which doomed it.
Ball, at first, was no different from his colleagues who vehemently opposed legalization.
“I was very much opposed to legalization,” he said. “I didn’t think there was any medical value to it. I have since had my bubble burst.”
What changed for Ball was hearing from North Alabama constituents who wanted to use the treatment to ease symptoms of various ailments, especially in children.
“What I did know is people obtaining the oil under a doctor’s care were not criminals and shouldn’t be treated that way,” he said.
The original draft of Carly’s Law, Ball said, was meant to decriminalize the use of the cannabis-infused oils for medical use, meaning users for that purpose would not be prosecuted. However, the bill wasn’t going to survive written like that.
“Fear and ignorance drive politics,” Ball said. “It was an election year and they were willing to let people suffer because someone might criticize them in a brochure.”
Ball moved on to Leni’s Law, named after Leni Young. It was signed into law in 2016. Like with Carly’s Law, the THC allowed in CBD products could not exceed 3 percent, but it expanded decriminalization efforts for those using such products for medical purposes.
Ironically, the medical cannabis Leni uses in Oregon would not be legal under the law that shares her name, her mother said. However, when the Youngs travel back to the state on occasion, they have an “affirmative defense” to use it for medical purposes.
“It broke my heart that families would have to leave to help their babies,” Ball said.
Ball said Carly’s Law helped prove there was a medical benefit to cannabis.
“We were successful because we got some research and knew for a fact it has a medical value,” Ball said. “It’s as arguable now as saying the Earth is flat. There will always be people who are stubborn and won’t open their hearts and minds to new evidence.”
Undaunted by the objections of some, Ball and Melson began crafting a bill, which would regulate the use of medical cannabis for a broad range of ailments including premenstrual syndrome, menopause, anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and other issues.
The so-called Compassion Act would set up a commission to regulate medical cannabis. The bill would allow for cannabis to be used in pill form, a gelatinous cube, a suppository, in oil, a nebulizer or a patch. It does not allow cannabis to be smoked, vaped or consumed in a baked good.
Melson, a medical researcher, said he was in a similar position to Ball when he was asked to “carry” the bill in the Senate in 2019.
“Two years ago they asked me to carry it because I do medical research for a living and I wasn’t going to do it,” the Florence Republican said. “I did some research and found that more and more people were seeing benefits. I thought it would be short-sighted and hard-headed not to try to get them some relief.”
The bill passed the Senate in 2019 and 2020, and Ball said he believes they had the votes to pass it in the House if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t stopped the process. Both Melson and Ball are optimistic about the bill’s chances in the 2021 general session.
“It may change. The House might make changes, but I hope it at least goes to a vote,” Melson said. “I think the governor will sign it. She’s very open-minded to science. I don’t think it will be an issue.”
Chey Garrigan, executive director of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, said there’s a good chance the current bill is amended to help the cannabis-related industry in the state. One of the aspects of the bill that might change, she said, is vertical integration. As written, the bill requires the grower to also process and sell the product. A change would make it easier for the industry to operate in the state.
Garrigan also expects more of a battle in the House when it comes to passage of the legislation. Although, like Ball and Melson, she expects it to pass.
“I do believe it will be a very positive session,” she said.
If passed, a Mobile CBD store could be in line to become a dispensary.
CannaBama owner Jennifer Boozer said she is very interested in what a medical marijuana law means for her business.
“That is exactly, 1,000 percent what I want,” she said of becoming an official dispensary. “I don’t have any information on how that would work.”
Boozer said she’s waiting on the legislation to pass to see what the guidelines will be. She said she will “do my best to get a dispensary license.”
“Everyone out there wants to make money from weed … I like money, but it has to get done well,” she said. “If we do that, the state could loosen the restrictions even more.”
In a letter to lawmakers in January, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote he opposes the current medical marijuana legislation and a spokesman for his office confirmed in an email to Lagniappe his views have not changed.
Chief among Marshall’s concerns is the continued prohibition of marijuana on a federal level. In the letter, Marshall said state laws could come in “direct conflict” with U.S. law.
“Thus, state marijuana statutes enacted in violation of federal law are damaging to the rule of law itself — a costly precedent that I urge you to bear in mind,” he wrote.
Marshall also used a portion of the letter to compare medical cannabis to the ongoing opioid crisis, which he took credit for fighting.
“Throughout the course of our multistate, multibillion-dollar lawsuits, the driving force for me has been the fact Alabama has been harder hit by opioids than most other states,” he wrote. “According to Blue Cross Blue Shield, their members in Alabama were twice as likely to be on a long-duration opioid regimen than the national average. This is relevant to the marijuana debate, given the foreboding similarities between the origins of the opioid crisis and today’s aggressive campaign to legalize marijuana for medical use.”
Melson argued studies, like the one done by UAB, have proven medical cannabis can be effective in treating opioid addiction.
“He’s got a right to his own opinion,” Melson said. “It is what it is. I like Steve. I just think he’s got it wrong.”
Marshall listed other concerns as part of his reasoning. For example, he wrote the impacts of long-term cannabis use are unknown.
“Long-term marijuana exposure is associated with cognitive impairment, development of addiction, abnormal brain development and symptoms of mental health conditions,” he wrote. “Amazingly, at the inception of the opioid crisis, no studies had been conducted involving the long-term outcomes of opioid use, nor was there evidence that opioids would improve patients’ pain and function for the long term — and the same is true for marijuana.”
Garrigan called Marshall’s opposition “wild” and said she doesn’t believe he actually wrote the letter.
“I believe he could get his point across in less than four pages,” she said. “He could do it in one page, maybe a paragraph.”
The medical benefits of cannabis are clear, Garrigan said, especially for children who are taking small doses of the drug to help relieve major symptoms.
“People shouldn’t have to move out of the state to get health care for their kids,” she said. “We should be able to take care of our own in this state.”
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