Alabama introduces bill for medical marijuana

March 31, 2005

Taylor Bright, The Huntsville Times

MONTGOMERY - People think of marijuana smokers as sitting in dimly lit places, playing video games or watching cartoons all night with a bag of Cheetos nestled in-between their legs.

For Laura Campbell, there is no fun in smoking the drug. The mother of three, in chronic pain, says she needs it to make life bearable.

Campbell came to Montgomery on Thursday to see Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, introduce a bill that would allow for medical use of marijuana. 

At least one common belief - that smoking marijuana makes people hungry - is true, Campbell said, and that's part of the reason she wants to make it legal in Alabama to smoke marijuana for medical reasons.

She often has bouts of nausea and diarrhea.The marijuana helps to stop the vomiting and the frequent trips to the bathroom. Most of her problems, and there are many, stem from arthritis in her spine.

'There's never a time I don't have pain,' said Campbell, a 32-year-old from Cullman with short red hair.

She is allergic to many traditional pain killers like Demerol and morphine. The legal, pharmaceutical version of marijuana, Marinol, makes her violently nauseous. So her husband goes out and buys Campbell's medicine from drug dealers.

She knows what she is doing is a crime. But, she says, it's the only way to deal with her pain.

'I'm asking for a tolerable existence,' said Campbell, who said the drug provides no high for her, just pain relief.

Though she is raising three children, she said she never smokes marijuana in front of them and if she has to, she has neighbors take care of them while she smokes.

And she's scared she could be arrested for possessing marijuana.

'Otherwise I wouldn't be here to fix it,' Campbell said.

Under Alabama law, possession of less than two pounds of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to a year in prison and up to a $2,000 fine.

For people using the drug for medical reasons, that would change. Under Hall's bill, people who need to use marijuana for medical reasons would register with the Alabama Department of Public Health and be allowed to keep small amounts of the drug without penalty. The bill would not decriminalize marijuana possession, Hall said.

Hall said she sponsored the bill in part from seeing her son, Ato, die of AIDS in 1992. Hall said that he couldn't take AZT, which doctors prescribed for him.

'As a mother, if there had been an opportunity to have a prescribed medication of marijuana I certainly would have felt good about being able have him take that because there was no other medication for him,' Hall said.

Eleven states, primarily in the West, have medical marijuana laws: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Montana, Vermont and Washington. Arizona allows marijuana prescriptions, but doesn't have an active program.

The battle could be long for Hall and Campbell. Already, Attorney General Troy King is opposing the bill that would allow for some people to legally posses marijuana.

'It is currently against Alabama law, and it is Attorney General King's personal opinion is that it remain so,' said Chris Bence, spokesman for the attorney general's office.

Bence said that although King had filed a friend of the court brief siding with California's medical marijuana laws in federal court, he was defending state's rights, not the medical marijuana law.

'His personal opinion is that it's not very good public policy,' Bence said.

A spokesman for the Medical Association of the State of Alabama said Thursday it hadn't had time to completely review Hall's bill.

'It appears to be a very thought-out bill,' said Dickey Whitaker, who lobbies for the association.

In Montgomery Thursday, Campbell appeared with Hall and Stephen Gordon, vice-chair of the Libertarian Party of Alabama, who is lobbying to pass Hall's bill, to speak for the bill.

Campbell's husband, who asked not to be further identified, said he has to go out and buy drugs on the street for his wife. The dealers, who know his wife's condition, give him a rate below recreational users' price and sometimes for free.

'It's pretty bad when a drug dealer is more compassionate than the government,' Gordon said.

The bill, just introduced, has a long journey and the legislative session has just crossed the halfway point. Hall thinks the bill can pass.

'If people read the bill and go and see what it's for, I think it would be reasonable to suspect that it would be successful,' Hall said. 'I'm an optimist, too.'



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