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Medical marijuana delayed again; could still reach patients this year

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission voted Thursday to issue a stay on the issuance of licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana, marking the third delay in the state’s bumpy rollout of a law passed in 2021.

The decision to hit pause on the process comes amid multiple lawsuits from companies that were not awarded licenses to do business in Alabama’s medical marijuana market.

Even with another holdup on licenses being issued, AMCC Chair Rex Vaughn told reporters that it was still possible medical marijuana could reach patients by the end of the year.

Alabama’s access to medical marijuana hit its first speed bump back in June when just days after awarding licenses to 21 companies based on scoring data, inconsistencies were discovered in how applicants were graded, after which a judge imposed a stay on the process. 

The commission attempted to award licenses a second time in early August, but were issued a second stay after a lawsuit was filed against the AMCC. Filed by Alabama Always, one of the applicants not selected for a license, the lawsuit alleged that the commission violated Alabama’s Open Meetings Act by partially deliberating in secret during a process known as an executive session.

That case is being heard by Montgomery County Circuit Judge James Anderson, with the next hearing is Wednesday. The outcome of the hearing and subsequent orders from Anderson will largely determine the commission’s agenda when it next meets on Sept. 19.

“Certainly it will be another delay for us; we would choose not to if we had an option, but we’re trying to concur with the judge’s wishes at this point,” Vaughn said after the meeting. 

“Judge Anderson has issued his own stay, so we pretty much have to concur with his wishes and directives. Every time we have one of these delays, we’re probably talking a couple of weeks to a month later that we get delayed, so it’s frustrating, but we’re going to honor what the court directs us to do.”

Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission Chair Rex Vaughn.

William Somerville, an attorney representing Alabama Always, told Alabama Daily News that a complete do-over would be the most appropriate action the commission could take, arguing that the entire process was “fundamentally flawed” from the start.

After Thursday’s meeting, Vaughn threw cold water on that proposal, however, and said under no circumstances would the commission restart the process from scratch.

“We will not walk that back, not doing that all over again… we don’t have time,” Vaughn said. “The previous timeframe for the scoring and the evaluators to do their work was pretty lengthy, so we don’t want to redo all that, and we still put a lot of value in the scoring that we have in front of us.”

One concession the commission will likely make, Vaughn said, would be that the members would avoid secret executive sessions in future meetings entirely, though he still maintained that the commission was within its rights to do so previously.

While executive sessions are permissible under Alabama’s Open Meetings Act, and are typically used to discuss sensitive topics like individuals’ personal history and character, what Alabama Always had alleged in its lawsuit is that the commission’s actions during its executive session constituted voting, something that is required to be done in a public forum.

Still, Vaughn maintained that nothing the commission did while in executive session constituted a violation of state law and that even with all the delays, Alabamians may still get access to medical marijuana by the end of the year under a best-case scenario.

“Based on what I know of the growing process and the dispensaries, a three-month turnaround would be pushing the limit, and then we also still have an investigative hearing process to go through after the licenses are actually issued,” Vaughn said. 

“So a lot of steps have to be taken for us to get to that process. You’re looking at a 12 to 14 week turnaround in growing that plant and getting it to a processor, so it’s getting more complicated by the day as far as trying to predict a timeline. But it’s just another delay, so we’ll deal with it.”

Others held out hope for a speedy rollout of medical cannabis as well, including Chey Garrigan with the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, an industry advocacy group.

“We hope within the year (medical marijuana becomes available to patients in Alabama), we really do,” Garrigan told Alabama Daily News Thursday. “All of them are ready, and they’ve been practicing a little while. By the time they get that license, they could have product on the shelf the next day. But without those licenses being issued, and people feel like they’ve been pushed and pulled, there’s no telling what could happen.”

 

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