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Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Medical Marijuana Bill

Alabama lawmakers just took another major step toward broad medical cannabis legalization.

Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Medical Marijuana Bill
Brian Goodman/ Shutterstock

HB 243, better known as the CARE Act, has cleared the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee and will now head to the full Senate just one month after Republican State Rep. and former Alabama Bureau of Investigation agent Mike Ball introduced the bill. Advancing out of committee represents a crucial step for the key medical marijuana legislation, bringing Alabama that much closer to a legal and regulated medical cannabis program.

CARE Act Clears Key Alabama Senate Committee

After a 6-2 vote (with 3 abstentions) advancing the CARE Act out of Alabama’s Senate Judiciary Committee, Alabama is decidedly on the path toward giving patients access to medical cannabis alternatives. The Compassion, Access, Research and Expansion (CARE) Act both extends Alabama’s existing medical cannabis programs and creates a new agency, the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, tasked with implementing the legislation and regulating the medical industry. It also sets aside resources for furthering research into medical marijuana.

With the exception of some law enforcement officials, legalizing medical cannabis enjoys broad support among lawmakers, health experts and the general public. Without it, “there will be unauthorized use,” said Dr. Szaflarski, professor of neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and supporter of legal medical cannabis. “Many patients have run out of options.”

Szaflarski is talking about the thousands of Alabama patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease and dozens of other severe and debilitating conditions that qualify for medical cannabis treatments under the CARE Act. The bill also provides a process for the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to approve additional qualifying conditions.

Alabama Health Practitioners Take the Lead

For Alabama State Rep. Mike Ball, a crucial component of the CARE Act is the control it gives to doctors. Rep. Ball said he received input from doctors who wanted Alabama to adopt a medical card approach, while also ensuring health practitioners play a key role in the patient registration process. “We want to give doctors latitude on this,” Ball said in March.

The CARE Act says licensed physicians, licensed physician assistants, and certified nurse practitioners would all be able to diagnose someone with a qualifying condition. But a last-minute amendment upped that requirement. To obtain a medical cannabis card, patients would have to see two doctors, one of whom has to be a specialist, to receive a card. However, given the high costs of healthcare in the United States, and the fact that CARE Act does not require insurers to cover medical cannabis-related costs, the amendment could pose access issues for some patients.

The CARE Act also doesn’t go far enough to protect patients from workplace discrimination or other issues that could arise from their authorized use of medical cannabis treatments. The bill does not require employers to make any accommodations for registered medical marijuana patients. It also does not limit or restrict any employer’s ability to establish or enforce drug-free workplace policies. Such policies have come under intense criticism in some states. In New York, for example, officials are considering a ban on testing for employees for marijuana.

CARE Act Looks to Spark Alabama’s Medical Cannabis Industry

From the industry side, the CARE Act sets up an entire licensing and regulatory framework for cultivators, processors, distributors and dispensary operators. The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission will enforce those rules. For the industry, an important provision in the bill would allow for medical cannabis reciprocity. Reciprocity means that patients authorized in other states could legally obtain, possess and use medical cannabis in Alabama.

The soonest medical marijuana could become available in Alabama, according to the CARE Act, is 2021. In the meantime, passage of the bill would extend Alabama’s existing medical cannabis protections, called “Carly’s Law“.

The CARE Act would extend Carly’s Law from July 1, 2019, when it is set to expire, to January 1, 2021. It would also change Carly’s law to cover the CARE Act’s list of qualifying conditions. Currently, Carly’s law applies only to patients suffering from severe epilepsy and seizures.

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