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Medical marijuana bill heads to first vote in Legislature

BY KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A medical marijuana bill is headed to its first vote in the Alabama Legislature as advocates hope to gain legislative traction after years of setbacks in Montgomery.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on the legislation Wednesday and could vote the same day. The bill by Republican Sen. Tim Melson would allow people to be prescribed medical marijuana for certain conditions, including cancer, anxiety and chronic pain, and to purchase cannabis products at a dispensary licensed by the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission.

Medical marijuana advocates for years made little headway in Montgomery. A medical marijuana bill in 2013 won the so-called “Shroud Award” for the “deadest” bill that year in the House of Representatives. A bill cleared the Alabama Senate last year but the measure faces continued skepticism in the House of Representatives and opposition from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

“The committee’s my hurdle right now. I can’t look at the end of the track until I cross the next one,” Melson said when asked about the bill’s outlook.

Melson, an anesthesiologist, said several years ago he would have opposed legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, but now believes that it can offer help to patients with certain debilitating conditions. He said support for the bill often depends on if a person knows someone who has, or could, benefit from medical marijuana.

Melson estimated that 150,000 to 200,000 people in Alabama would have a qualifying condition that would allow them to be prescribed medical marijuana from a physician. Qualifying patients would be given a medical cannabis card and buy the products at a licensed dispensary. The bill allows up to 34 dispensaries in the state, he said.

“We don’t want them on every corner,” Melson said.

The bill would allow marijuana only in the form of pills, gelatinous cubes, skin patches and gels and creams. It would not allow products consumed by smoking or vaping. It would also not allow edibles where the marijuana is baked into cookies, candies or other food items.

The bill would allow marijuana to be prescribed for any of 15 conditions: Anxiety, autism, cancer, Crohns’s disease, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, AIDS-related weight loss, persistent nausea, post traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, spastic movements associated with motor neuron disease, terminal illnesses with a life expectancy of less than six months, Tourette’s Syndrome and chronic pain.

The marijuana would be grown in-state by farmers with a minimum of eight years of farming experience, under the bill.

The Alabama Senate approved similar legislation last year, but medical marijuana has faced more opposition in the House of Representatives.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he believes the legislation continues to have “strong support here.”

“It will be interesting to see when it gets to the House where that is,” Marsh said.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said the House is waiting to see what comes out of the Senate. He said House members have had concerns about how marijuana would be prescribed and the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

The bill faces opposition from the state attorney general. Marshall said his office opposes legalized marijuana as a matter of principle.

In a Jan. 6 letter to lawmakers, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall called marijuana an addictive substance and drew parallels with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. He also noted federal law continues to ban marijuana.

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