Bill would allow medical marijuana in Alabama

April 07, 2005

Sarah Kate Sullivan, The Crimson White (Univ. of Alabama)

On college campuses, many stereotype those who sport jam band T-shirts, wear hemp jewelry and listen to 'String Cheese, man,' as the typical college-age marijuana user.

But what defines the image of a user after he or she grows out of the 'experimental phase?'

One thing is certain: Laura Campbell hardly fits the bill of a grown-up hippie. To the mother of three, smoking the drug is not part of any recreational lifestyle.

Instead, using marijuana is a necessity. She smokes it to make her chronic pain more bearable so she can be a better mother, she told The Huntsville Times last week.

Campbell, who said she is allergic to prescription painkillers like Demerol and morphine, accompanied state Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, as she introduced a bill that would allow for the medicinal use of marijuana in Alabama.

Hall could not be reached for comment this week.

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

But Hall's bill would exclude those who smoke the drug for medicinal purposes from these charges. Those who need medical marijuana would register with the Alabama Department of Public Health and be given the right to hold small amounts of the drug without the risk of a criminal penalty.

Medical marijuana laws are already on the books in eleven states. Arizona allows marijuana prescriptions but does not have an active program.

Hall and Campbell may have their work cut out for them as experts and doctors agree that the hot-button issue is unlikely to gain support in the Legislature.

'It virtually has no chance,' said William Stewart, former chairman of the UA political science department. 'So little legislation gets through, especially a controversial bill. People don't want to see any signal that the law is going easy on drug use, even if it is for a noble purpose.'

Stewart said Hall's bill is the first legislation to propose legalizing medicinal marijuana in Alabama's history.

Politics aside, the medical community continues to straddle the fence on the issue.

Anne-Laura Cook, a third-year UA medical school student from Tuscaloosa, said she supports marijuana use for treatment in the cases of terminally ill patients, but not for chronic pain. She said allergic reactions like Campbell's are too rare to argue a strong case for such use of the drug.

'I hesitate to endorse marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain because I know it is a gateway drug to harder drugs,' Cook said. 'I would need to know scientific research that proves marijuana is better than current legal therapies.'

She said some of her colleagues in the College of Community Health Sciences do support medical marijuana use. They have continued to increasingly warm up to the idea, she said, because other prescription drugs are often more addictive and cause more problems for the patient in the long run.

'It doesn't make sense for marijuana to be illegal if the more severe drugs are sold by prescription,' she said. 'More research has to be done.'

Students at the Capstone are divided on the issue. Their opinions range from strong opposition to medical marijuana to full support for legalizing the drug altogether.

Students who opposed the bill said their morals and religion influenced their decision. All agreed, however, that legalizing marijuana for medicinal use would make the drug harder to control.

'I think people would abuse medical access to marijuana just like Adderall,' said Pete Silliman, a freshman majoring in economics. 'There's no reason to have marijuana if you've got, like, morphine and stuff that's better out there.'

Anna Chappell, a junior majoring in advertising, wants marijuana to be completely legal.

'I don't even smoke, but I think it's a personal decision,' she said. 'Marijuana has proven not to be harmful, while other stuff is much more addictive.'

Michael Gay, a freshman from Atlanta majoring in management information systems, said he opposes the bill because he sees legalizing marijuana in any way as opening Pandora's box.

'Once they legalize it for medicine, what's to stop them from legalizing it all the way?' he asked. 'I have personally seen how marijuana has sent friends in the wrong direction. It most certainly is a gateway drug.'

In the future, the issue may pull more weight as government-backed drug prevention programs continue to fail, Stewart said.

'At some point, we must ask if we should continue to devote these resources to something people are going to do anyway,' he said.

Stewart likened recreational marijuana use to alcohol use during prohibition. He said illegal substances are often used more simply because thrill seekers get a kick out of defying authority. At the same time, he said firm drinking laws probably encourage widespread binge drinking in the United States, which he said is hardly a problem in Europe.

'As we currently deal with prison system overcrowding and other problems, there will likely be a reassessment of American drug policy,' Stewart said. 'More and more prisoners are housed for drug offenses. These are not violent criminals, but they are not upstanding citizens.

'So the question arises, 'Do we want more taxes or do we want releases?''

He said the issue is unique because it is not divided by liberals on one side and conservatives on the other. In fact, the founder of the conservative movement, William F. Buckley, was the first to raise the issue of legalization, he said.



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