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Senate approves medical marijuana bill

By CAROLINE BECK and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Senate passed legislation Thursday regulating medical marijuana for patients with certain conditions.

The bill now goes to the Alabama House.

Senate Bill 236, dubbed the CARE Act, would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to administer a patient registry system and issue medical cannabis cards. The bill lists about 30 qualifying conditions, including addiction, cancer, autism, epilepsy, terminal conditions and end-of-life care.

Patients would need a prescription from a doctor and a second recommendation from a specialist in order to obtain medical marijuana.

The 17-6 vote happened quickly Thursday morning and without debate. It had been discussed Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, is sponsoring the bill. A physician who now does clinical trials, Melson highlighted the medical benefits of marijuana as opposed to more addictive opioid-based drugs.

He said he probably wouldn’t have sponsored the bill before he began researching medical marijuana this year.

“I finally looked up the facts, instead of stereotyping what medical cannabis is, and found out what it actually does,” Melson said.

Melson’s neighbor to the south, Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, was the bill’s chief opponent during floor debate. Also a doctor, Stutts said the medical community is not in consensus about marijuana as a treatment.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics is not in favor for (medical marijuana),” Stutts said. “There are mainline medical organizations that would be on the front line for people who would use medical marijuana, and they don’t support it.”

Stutts also said the legislation is a step toward recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, parents tell their children not to try marijuana, but the state could legalize an aspect of it.

“I think that sends a totally wrong message about it,” Stutts said.

Melson refuted that claim and said the point of the bill is to give those suffering from chronic pain an alternative form of pain management medication.

“I think what the message is that we’re not so narrow-minded and pig-headed that we don’t think about what other options are out there,” Melson said. “If you have someone who has cancer and is going through chemotherapy and is vomiting a lot and nothing else is working, I think it’s pretty cold-hearted to not at least give it a try.”

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, voted for the bill.

“There are a lot of people who have a number of illnesses, chronic illness, and they’re taking a lot of pain medication,” Coleman-Madison said. “That’s the only way they can function, the only way they can go to work. We know that leads to addiction.”

Alabama in recent years had the highest in the nation opioid prescription rate per capita.

“If we are ever going to get ahead of opioid addition, we are going to have to do something different,” Coleman-Madison said.

Under the bill, the commission would also issue licenses for the cultivation, processing, transportation, manufacturing, packaging, dispensing and sale of cannabis.

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, was one of the six no votes against the bill. 

“I know this is starting the road to recreational marijuna, there’s no question. …I will not go down that road.”

Sen. Shay Shelnutt was a yes vote.

“I voted for it because I know people with Parkinson’s and other diseases, and I think they should have the right to have a prescription to allow them to deal with those diseases,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the bill is “very tight” in what it allows. He voted for it.

“I’ve had some of my constituents come to me with bad arthritic conditions and other issues and have asked about possible passage, and people are just looking for some relief,” Marsh said. “Another factor, which is what turned me to a yes vote, when I look at the opioid problem in this country and the addiction to opioids and many times, they are for pain use, cannabis is the same thing, and the addiction rate to cannabis is extremely low. So if I’m thinking that if you’re going to have something out there for pain, I want them to take something with less addictive properties.”

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, was not on the Senate floor for the vote, but said he didn’t support the bill.

“I was leaning to support it, but once I learned all the facts and details to this issue it seemed to me like a slippery slope approach to the gateway of harder drugs and possibly to the passage of recreational use of marijuana,” Allen said.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, will carry the bill in the House. A previous version of the legislation had 20 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors, including Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia.

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