Marijuana as medicine?

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Alabama recently moved a step closer to joining 32 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing the legal production and sale of a wide range of medical cannabis products.

Following an 8–1 approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee, a bill that would legalize the growth, sale and use of medical marijuana products will now be considered by the full Senate. The bill received bipartisan support, with only 2 of 10 members failing to affirm the bill’s path to a vote. Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield, a medical doctor, voted no, and Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, abstained.

A similar bill passed in the Senate last year but failed to pass in the House. But things are changing rapidly in Alabama and nationwide with regard to cannabis, and that may mean the current bill has better prospects of passage.

State Sen. Tim Melson, a medical doctor and Republican from Florence, introduced the current 75-page bill, titled the Compassion Act, which was recommended late last year by the 18-member Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission chaired by Melson. The commission recommended the development of a cannabis program with several objectives, including:

  • Reduce or eliminate abuse by individuals not truly in need
  • Reduce or eliminate unlawful diversion of cannabis products
  • Ensure that law enforcement agencies can continue to enforce the state’s drug laws
  • Ensure the process for obtaining medical cannabis products by a patient who may genuinely benefit from medical cannabis is not overly burdensome
  • Ensure physicians are well informed about their role and responsibilities
    under the program
  • Support research to further beneficial uses for both marijuana and hemp in the medical field.

However, the bill faces opposition, even among the members of the study commission that ultimately endorsed it.

“One member of the Study Commission who strongly opposes a state medical cannabis program recommends the state continue to recognize marijuana as a Class I Controlled Substance, as it is classified by Congress under the federal Controlled Substances Act,” the commission report noted without identifying the dissenter.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), is urging legislators to vote against the bill, challenging Melson’s characterization that the bill is “very restrictive.”

“We know from experience that every year legislators will return to Montgomery and systematically remove the restrictions, as they have done with alcohol over the last several decades,” Godfrey said.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has also come out against the bill, Godfrey noted.

Legal and medical experts debated the comparative risks and rewards of marijuana as medicine last fall at Samford University’s Healthcare Ethics and Law Conference, “Medical Marijuana: Its Benefits and Risks to Society.” The day-long conference was hosted by Samford’s Center for Faith and Health and its Healthcare Ethics and Law Institute.

While marijuana remains a controlled substance at the federal level, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the growing of hemp, a species of cannabis that contains CBD, often touted for its medicinal potential, but a negligible amount of THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high feeling.

Booming industry

The legalization of hemp paved the way for a booming CBD industry. CBD oils, vaping pods and other products can now be found in retail outlets throughout Alabama and are largely unregulated.

It’s time to change that, especially from a federal perspective, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told the Samford conference participants.

“Ultimately, we need to better address a legal pathway for active ingredients in cannabis,” Gottlieb said. “We also need to be honest and clear about the risks associated with CBD, as well as THC, and the dangers created by our continued ambivalence that’s allowed THC-containing products to be sold and promoted for inappropriate recreational and purportedly medical uses. The current federal [regulation] makes proper research too hard. The current state [regulations] make access — particularly by children — far too permissive,” he said.

“We need to end the handwringing when it comes to cannabis. We need to firm up regulation over the frivolous recreational uses and make legitimate development of proposed medical applications easier to pursue through proper research. We need to contemplate a federal regimen for THC that would enable it to be more easily studied in properly controlled settings for its purported medical uses, while superseding state laws that allow frivolous recreational uses that are creating long-term consequences for adults but especially children,” Gottlieb asserted.

“We need a federal reckoning when it comes to cannabis.”