Get the Daily News Digest in your inbox each morning. Sign Up

Alabama’s bumpy rollout of medical marijuana divides industry advocates, players

Not unlike other states, Alabama’s rollout of medical marijuana has been a bumpy one flush with lawsuits, with a judge placing a temporary block on the issuance of licenses to grow and sell medical cannabis Thursday, just a week after the state awarded said licenses for a second time.

Some, such as Marty Schelper, founder and president of the Alabama Cannabis Coalition, have called for Gov. Kay Ivey to call a special session and give lawmakers the opportunity to remove the cap on the number of licenses the state can issue.

“That legislation picked winners and losers; it’s not free-market capitalism, it’s a monopoly,” Schelper told Alabama Daily News on Friday, referring to the 2021 bill that legalized medical cannabis in the state. 

The state has placed limits on the number of licenses it issues to grow and sell medical cannabis, at least during the rollout period, largely to prevent an immediate market oversaturation and to have a tighter control on quality. 

Opponents of the controlled rollout such as Schelper, however, argue that opening the process up would not only reduce costs for medical marijuana patients, but put a stop to the ongoing lawsuits from companies denied licenses, lawsuits that Schelper said “are not going to end” and “could go on for years.”

“Citizens are being delayed in having access to this life-saving product, and our position is Gov. Kay Ivey can call a special session, call the legislators back into the Alabama House and amend this legislation in whatever way they need to amend it,” she said. “We’re supporting that anybody and everybody that has the financial backing to enter into this industry should be able to have access to one of those licenses.”

Medical cannabis is projected to be a $33.6 billion industry by the end of 2023.

Some of the companies that applied for a license but weren’t awarded one took issue with the rollout of the program as well, including David Ware, who operates Green Up Corporation and had applied for a cultivation license.

While not explicitly calling on the state to expand the number of licenses it issues, Ware instead took issue with licenses being awarded to out-of-state companies, and argued that for an Alabama medical cannabis program, Alabama companies should have been considered first and foremost.

“We’ve got green houses, we’ve been in the hemp program since the program started in Alabama, so we were thinking that would give us some kind of consistency with the application process, but it didn’t happen that way,” Ware said.

“If it’s an Alabama program, let’s keep it in Alabama because we’ve got people here that work for our state that want to see this program take off. There’s only a few of us in the state that are trying to get on the medical side, and we were anticipating flipping over from hemp to cannabis being that we’ve got an over $1 million facility, (and) already dealing with the state as far as regulations.”

Mike Ball, a former lawmaker who was a key player in Alabama eventually legalizing medical marijuana, had a different perspective on the path going forward. While admitting the rollout of medical marijuana did not go “as quickly as we would like,” Ball said that the state staying the course on issuing licenses as they were awarded last week was the quickest way to get medical cannabis in the hands of patients.

“I wish this process would have been a little less convoluted than it has been, but I think the commission is doing the best they can to try to move forward, (and) I think a special session could do more harm than good at this point,” Ball told ADN Friday.

“We’re setting something from the ground up; we are in uncharted waters, but I do believe that if we get this system in place and it starts working, then the Legislature can do some tweaks that can make it work better, but it needs to be very deliberate.”

He said any changes to the law would be better done after medical cannabis is somewhat established in the state.

“We’ve got to get people growing it, we’ve got to get this process in place, and then the legislature can decide whether to expand it,” Ball said.

“I believe once people realize that this isn’t going to have potheads running up and down the street, then people will be less afraid to allow other people to use it in more areas. We need to continue the course.”

Others took completely different issues with the medical cannabis rollout, such as Chey Garrigan with the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, who said not enough effort has been put into raising awareness to medical cannabis being legalized in the state.

“Appropriate some funds for some programs in the area to be able to raise awareness,” Garrigan told ADN when asked what lawmakers could do to help improve the rollout of medical cannabis.

While still maintaining that lawmakers could play a role in helping promote awareness of medical cannabis, Garrigan is also helping organize the Alabama Medical Cannabis Conference, a two-day event in Birmingham scheduled for October that will feature industry experts and leaders, including Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission Director John McMillan and Matt Hart with the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners and Medical Licensure Commission.

Despite the temporary block on licenses, Rex Vaughn, chairman of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, maintains he’s hopeful patients will be able to purchase medical marijuana by the end of 2023.

Get the Daily News Digest in your inbox each morning.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Web Development By Infomedia