By Brian Lyman for the Montgomery Advertiser

"I think states in the Southeast are starting to understand this is not an east coast/west coast issue, but are adapting the issue to policies and realities in their particular states.” - David Mangone

Alabama has allowed limited use of marijuana derivatives to help patients in recent years. Now some of the people behind those efforts want broader access to medical marijuana.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, filed a bill last week that would allow people suffering from one of nearly three dozen medical conditions to use medical marijuana if they get a recommendation from a physician, a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner.

Ball championed Carly’s Law in 2014 and Leni’s Law in 2016. The legislation granted access to cannabidiol (CBD), an oil derived from the marijuana plant, for those suffering severe seizures. Ball insisted in a phone interview on Monday that he introduced the bill for strict health reasons.

“Its time has come,” he said. “When I first introduced Carly’s Law, there was no support hardly. There certainly wasn’t enough to get it done.”

The legislation, titled the Compassion, Access, Research and Expansion (CARE) Act, would allow Alabama residents 19 years and older with one of 33 conditions – including addiction; cancer; chronic pain; depression, schizophrenia and other mental illness – to obtain “medical grade cannabis” if they get a diagnosis of what the bill calls a “qualifying condition.”

The bill would also set up a state commission to oversee the medical marijuana program, with doctors holding a majority of the nine seats on the panel. The commission would consult with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries on setting up cultivation of cannabis in line with the program. The commission would have to develop rules for the cultivation and distribution of cannabis before January 1, 2021, though it could fast-track applicants before then upon an on-site inspection. 

Patients would have to apply for a card allowing them to carry cannabis, a card that would cost $65 a year and could be subject to renewal fees.

Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia, and some states see cannabis as a tool to help stem the opioid epidemic. A 2018 study by the University of Georgia found that medical cannabis cut the use of opioids by over 14 percent. 

 Earlier this month, the Georgia House of Representatives approved a bill expanding access to CBD oil in the Peach State. A bill to bring medical marijuana to South Carolina is pending in that state’s legislature, though it appears to be stalling. A bill has also been filed in the Tennessee General Assembly and was a model for Ball’s legislation.

David Mangone, the director of government relations for Americans for Safe Access, a Washington group that advocates for access to marijuana-based therapies and treatments, said the opioid crisis and the expansion of medical marijuana into traditionally conservative states, like Oklahoma, had pushed the Southeast to a “tipping point.” 

“I think states in the Southeast are starting to understand this is not an east coast/west coast issue, but are adapting the issue to policies and realities in their particular states,” Mangone said. 

Dustin Chandler, whose 8-year-old daughter Carly is the namesake of Carly’s Law, said CBD oil had reduced the seizures his daughter experienced. Chandler said he felt “called” to advocate for the medical cannabis law, which he said might provide relief to many suffering from medical conditions. Chandler said he remembered his sense of desperation trying to find a treatment for his daughter.

“Is it the silver bullet? No,” said Chandler. “But it’s another option for doctors to try.”

The bill would extend Carly’s Law through 2021, and incorporate Leni’s Law -- which allowed possession of CBD under certain conditions -- into its provisions.

Ball’s 21 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors include House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. McCutcheon said Thursday he was uncertain about its prospects were. But he said the experience with Carly's Law and Leni's Law brought him aboard.

“Looking at some of the research that’s been done through UAB, and having the opportunity to have the patients be identified as patients who are worthy of having this type of treatment was one of the things that really prompted my interest on that bill,” he said.

State law enforcement groups have opposed medical marijuana bills in the past. Bobby Timmons, the executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association, said in a phone interview Monday the group had not yet taken a position on Ball’s bill.

“We’d like to read it and see what it says,” he said.

Mark Jackson, the executive director of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA), which represents physicians in the state, said MASA had not taken an official position on the proposal, though he added that the group in the past opposed treatments that lacked approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“We’re supportive of helping patients with legitimate medical needs and getting them the most appropriate medical treatment, which is what doctors do,” he said. “We just need to make sure the process when we do something like that is a legitimate process.”

The bill also provides a nine percent state tax on medical cannabis and authorizes county and municipal governments to levy a tax of up to 2.1 percent. It is not clear how those levies would work with the state’s existing tax on marijuana, an anti-drug measure passed in 1988 used chiefly to prosecute drug dealers. Ball said he would review that. But revenue was not his major goal. 

“There’s nobody with a financial interest at all at this point,” he said. “I’m sure there will be people who see an opportunity, and we welcome anyone who wants to. This is about lives and people.”