Despite leaping a procedural hurdle early on Tuesday afternoon, the fate of Alabama’s medical marijuana bill is still in doubt, following an hours-long debate in the State House that stretched until midnight.
The bill, known as the Compassion Act, which would legalize cannabis for use for a small number of ailments, was poised for a final vote in the House after a budget isolation resolution (BIR) for the legislation was approved by about 69 percent of the chamber. The BIR required three-fifths of the House to approve it before the bill could be considered for a final vote.
Following the BIR approval, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Mike Ball (R-Madison) told colleagues how the bill got to this point.
The origins of the bill, Ball said, come from a desperate grandmother trying to find relief for a 14-month-old granddaughter who suffered about 100 seizures per day. It was 2013 and Ball, a retired Alabama State Trooper, was against lifting the prohibition on marijuana in any form.
Following the session that year where a medical cannabis bill received the “shroud award” for being the deadest bill, Ball said he received an email from the grandmother asking him to consider supporting medical cannabis to help her granddaughter.
“In October I got the email and it changed my life,” he told colleagues. “I almost deleted the email because my heart had turned against it. I was unaware of the benefits.”
It turns out, Ball said, the family was going to have to move out of state to help the baby cope with the gene deletion that caused the seizures.
“I realized I would not be able to live with my conscience without finding a solution for these people,” he said. “These people who have to deal with this should not be prosecuted.”
Ball had his clerk research the issue and found that THC oil had medical promise and the idea grew from there. At the time, the idea of legalizing medical cannabis was still too controversial to get much traction in the GOP-led Legislature.
“You would’ve thought I’d opened the gates to Sodom and Gomorrah,” Ball said of introducing the THC oil bill. “It was destined to die and I will tell you it just broke my heart.”
After several tweaks, Ball’s bill did pass, but a new version would allow the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study the impact of THC oil and allow Alabamians in need to participate in the study.
As Ball and others found out, though, not everyone in need qualified for the study. Another law was passed that would allow patients in need of THC for medical purposes to avoid prosecution. The current law would establish a commission to regulate medical cannabis and allow doctors to prescribe it for a limited number of ailments and allow for dispensaries to sell it.
The bill passed the Senate in 2019 and 2020, but fell short of a vote in the House last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the popularity of the current bill, which easily cleared its first hurdle in the House Tuesday, a small, but very dedicated group of representatives began an hours-long filibuster, which delayed any chance on Tuesday for a final vote on the legislation that has already passed the Senate.
Opponents on Tuesday, including Jim Carns (R-Vestavia Hills), argued that approval of the bill would alter the state forever and turn it into Colorado, which many members viewed in a negative light.
It should be noted that Colorado now has legal recreational marijuana. Ball’s bill would not legalize cannabis for recreational use.
Opponents also argued that the Compassion Act would open the door to recreational cannabis. Ball said he would be against approving the drug for recreational use.
Those in favor of the bill, like Juandalyn Givan (D-Birmingham), said the legislation would help patients in need. She also criticized those opposed to it for claiming, among other things, that users can overdose.
“Not one time have I seen anybody die from a marijuana overdose,” she said. “I know some folks who smoke real marijuana. I know some people who put it up.”
Givan also joked about life as a legislator making her consider taking up marijuana use.
“I don’t smoke, but every now and then I think about it,” she said. “Dealing with you all down here sometimes I need a hit.”
The same group of opponents would continue to debate and ask questions about the bill over and over until the clock ran out on the legislative day. The expectation is the bill will come back up for consideration on Wednesday.
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