The future of medical marijuana in Alabama hinges on a vote in the State House of Representatives as time in this year’s legislative session ticks away.
Senate Bill 42, which would legalize cannabis for medical use to treat a number of ailments, passed the Alabama Senate for the third time earlier in the session. The bill has passed the upper chamber, but stalled in the House the previous two years. That fate could change this session as lawmakers await a chance to vote on the legislation. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, said the decision to bring it to a vote lies in the hands of GOP House Speaker Mac McCutcheon.
“I don’t think he’ll dawdle that long,” Ball said. “I’m confident he’ll get it to the floor.”
As for the bill’s prospects after it reaches the floor, Ball is still confident it’ll pass because it has already worked its way through two House committees — judiciary and health — and a lot of the individual issues legislators had with it have been massaged through the process.
“I wasn’t thrilled,” Ball said when he found out the legislation was going through two committees instead of the standard one. “It was better off than we would’ve been going through one.”
Both committees added amendments to the offering and those changes were consolidated into a substitute that will be offered to the entire House for a vote.
“The opposition has shrunken,” he said. “The votes are there to pass it, but it depends on the opposition. It’d be a crying shame if it doesn’t pass.”
One issue that could slow the bill, or stop it altogether because of the short amount of time left in the session, is a filibuster. Even with this possibility, Ball remains confident in the bill’s success.
“I’m not a fan of the filibuster,” he said. “I never cared for it, even when [Republicans] were in the minority. I don’t care if they bump their gums though, as long as we get the bill out of the House.”
If and when the bill is approved by lawmakers in the House, those changes will force it through either the concurrence process with the Senate’s version of the bill or to a conference committee, where the differences are worked out, Ball said.
It would then head to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk for a signature before becoming law.
The differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill are somewhat significant, but are mostly focused on the ailments medical cannabis could be legally used for. As an example, the Senate bill includes anxiety, PMS and menopause, while the House version strips those issues out. The House version includes Parkinson’s disease. The bill would allow medical cannabis to be used for chronic pain relief, depression and other issues.
The House committees also added a provision that would allow municipalities to ban dispensaries they didn’t feel fit in with the community.
As for whether he’s disappointed in the amendments made to a bill he’s shepherded through the process, Ball chalked it up to the process.
“You’re never satisfied,” he said. “There were a lot of compromises, but it’s nothing that stops it from what it is intended to do.”
Passing the legislation is what’s most important, he said. Other issues can be “adjusted” once it’s approved and it’s been part of the law over time.
The bill, now primed for a vote in the lower chamber, 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.
While Ball has said the opposition to the proposal has shrunken in the House over the years, the opposition presented during public hearings on the bill has been somewhat intense this session.
Christine Carr, a nurse anesthetist from Pelham, said the bill is named the “Compassion Act” does anything but shows compassion because it puts “profits ahead of patients.”
“Let’s deal with real facts instead of pop culture,” she told the House Health Committee at a public hearing. “It doesn’t help with pain. Where there is weed, opioids you will need.”
Carr also said she is considered about children being exposed to marijuana, which she said would happen if the bill becomes law.
Dr. Martha Rawlerson, a pediatrician in Brewton, said marijuana is harmful both in the short term and long term because it “interferes with brain function.”
“Marijuana is not a medicine,” she said. “I cannot write a prescription for it.”
Proponents argued the opposite in front of the committee in Montgomery, saying they’ve seen personal examples of cannabis helping sick family members.
Melissa Mullins, an executive administrator with Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, said cannabis has helped her husband, who suffers from epilepsy, and her 18-year-old daughter, who is autistic.
“I have seen tremendous benefits from the healing properties of cannabis,” she said.
Mullins argued to the committee she and her family shouldn’t have to travel out of state for “quality health care.”
Local legislators reached by Lagniappe approve of medical cannabis. Rep. Barbara Drummon, D-Mobile, said she hasn’t read the substitute bill yet, but approves of medical cannabis in general.
Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, said he not only approves of medical cannabis, but hopes the state can take marijuana legalization a “bit further.”
Republican Rep. Chris Pringle did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
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