Medical marijuana is on its way to the Yellowhammer State, at least for those who get an Alabama marijuana card.
The Alabama House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 46 on May 6, 2021, following nearly eleven hours of debate. The Senate quickly approved the changes that the House had added to the bill, which the Senate had passed in February.
With major changes on the way for marijuana laws in Alabama, now is a good time to review how we got here and what’s likely to come as a result.
Alabama’s first major stop on the road to legalization was Carly’s Law, passed in 2014. Named for a then-3-year-old girl with severe epilepsy, the law legalized CBD oil with up to 3% THC for those with a “debilitating epileptic condition” who had exhausted other avenues for treatment and relief.
Carly’s father, Dustin Chandler, told Birmingham CBS affiliate WIAT that his daughter’s condition has greatly improved since she began using the CBD oil made legal by the law named for her.
Chandler’s outlook on cannabis has also changed as a result. He told WIAT, “I think it really opened my eyes to it. And I think it has to a lot of people. We’ve got to get rid of the stigma cannabis has had. If there are people that truly need medical cannabis, we have to look at the best ways, safe, responsible ways to allow them to have access to it.”
The next step towards legalizing medical marijuana came in 2019 with Leni’s Law, an expansion to Carly’s law.
Named for an Alabamian child whose family moved to Oregon so they could treat her seizures with cannabis, the bill expanded legalization to apply to anyone who suffered from debilitating seizures, not just to epileptics.
One legislator who supported Leni’s Law had previously opposed all legalization measures. His change of heart seemed to echo Dustin Chandler’s belief that familiarity with the benefits of marijuana breeds acceptance.
State Senator Paul Sanford told the Alabama Media Group that his outlook was changed after meeting with hopeless Alabamian families who were out of legal options to relieve their children’s suffering.
"When you meet one of the families, and you see their children and you see the pain in the eyes of those parents and then put myself in their shoes and realize how blessed I am and how much strength that those families show for the situations that they have, how could I not help them?" Sanford said.
As for Chandler, he fought for passage of SB 46 after seeing just how much medical marijuana helped his daughter, and he was pleased after the passage of Leni’s Law to know it would now help even more Alabamians.
He told the Opelika Observer that Leni’s Law “gives hope to many other Alabamians,” Chandler said following its passage. “My entire reason to get involved was to help more people. So helping pass two different bills related to CBD and cannabis has definitely been tiring, however well worth it if Alabamians get help.”
Things are Changing, “It’s Just a Slow Go”
Several failed attempts to expand medical marijuana access and curtail sentencing for marijuana-related crimes followed Leni’s Law, until Alabama finally arrived at SB 46. As with Carly and Leni’s laws before it, the compassion and empathy that comes with increased familiarity seems to have played a role in SB 46’s passage.
Republican state Representative Mike Ball had opposed medical marijuana legislation in the past, but told CNN that he changed his mind and supported SB 46 after learning about the benefits of medical marijuana. He said he hoped opponents would keep an open mind and perhaps also come to support legalization.
“It might make a statement about our compassion. It might make a statement that we're not completely closed to everything,” Ball said. “A lot of times folks get set in their ways and it's just hard to open your heart to something. ... It just tells you that we are changing our mind about some things, it's just a slow go.”
Ball told CNN he hopes opponents will “open your heart, open your mind and listen to the other side.”
One Mother’s Pain, Alabama’s Relief
SB 46 has been dubbed the “Darren Wesley ‘Ato’ Hall Compassion Act” as a tribute to the son of an Alabamian legislator and to her work to make legalization possible.
State Representative Laura Hall first introduced a legalization bill to the House floor twenty years ago. She was prompted by the death of her son, Darren, five years earlier due to AIDS-related complications.
Hall has told the Opelika Observer that she has “no doubt” her son “would not have suffered and died” if he had had access to marijuana to treat his condition.
What Does the Darren Wesley “Ato” Hall Compassion Act Do?
While SB 46 legalizes medical marijuana, there are some important conditions.
First, marijuana use will only be legal for Alabamians suffering from one of more than a dozen qualifying conditions.
To get relief with medical marijuana, Alabamians with a qualifying condition will need a doctor’s approval in order to get a state-issued marijuana card.
Once their cards are in hand, Alabamians will be able to legally purchase medical marijuana at one of up to twelve licensed dispensaries throughout the state.
The whole process is likely to take some time. Representative Ball, who went from cannabis critic to shepherding the bill through the legislative process, told the Associated Press “We’ve still got another year or so before this gets set up and cranked up, but at least we have hope now.”
There is Always a Catch (or Two or Three)
There are other issues besides the passage of time that could complicate medical marijuana relief for some Alabamians.
First, the law limits the forms in which medical marijuana may be taken, defining “‘medical cannabis’” to exclude marijuana-infused food products and marijuana that can be smoked or vaped, and only recognizes as permissible “other products such as oral tablets, gels, oils, creams, patches, or lozenges.”
Second, the law gives employers significant leeway in setting workplace policies that diverge from SB 46. The National Law Review reports that “unlike many other state medical marijuana legalization laws, the bill does not contain any express employment protections for medical marijuana cardholders.”
However, they also note that courts nationwide have allowed marijuana cardholders to “assert disability claims under state disability discrimination laws and, in some instances, the ADA,” so employers may want to proceed with caution before terminating ailing employees.
Finally, there are two ways SB 46 could still be prevented from passing into law, although they seem unlikely to happen.
Unlikely but not Unprecedented
One way medical marijuana could still hit a dead end in Alabama is if Governor Kay Ivey were to veto the bill. While thus far her office has issued only a neutral statement that she is going to carefully review the law, she did sign Leni’s Law into, well, law, and is believed by most observers to be in support of SB 46.
SB 46 was passed with bipartisan support, and if it is signed into law by the governor it would seem to have broad political support within the state. Still, a Supreme Court decision can always derail what seems like a legislative sure thing.
In November 2020, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved ballot Initiative 65 to legalize medicinal marijuana in that state.
As recently as last week, the Mississippi Health Department was in the midst of establishing the state’s medicinal marijuana market, and educating residents on how they would soon be able to find relief.
However, the mayor of Madison, Mississippi, Mary Hawkins Butler, had filed a lawsuit to prohibit the implementation of Initiative 65 mere days before 74% of Mississipians voted it into (almost) law. In essence, her complaint about the initiative stemmed from a constitutional technicality.
The challenge wasn’t taken seriously by most observers; after all, if the Mississippi Supreme Court shot it down, the Justices would be rejecting an initiative supported by 74% of their constituents, and all on a technicality.
Then, more than three weeks after it had heard the arguments for and against the initiative, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided in Butler’s favor and struck down Initiative 65.
Medical Marijuana in AL Could be Blocked (But it Probably Won’t)
It is entirely possible for Alabama’s road to legalization to also end in a judicial roadblock.
During the debate over SB 46, 23 district attorneys from around the state sent a letter to the legislature condemning the bill and calling medical marijuana “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Furthermore, while SB 46 passed with bipartisan support, it did not pass unanimously.
If there is a lesson in Mississippi, it might be this: Even a widely popular thing isn’t a sure thing, and so long as there is any opposition, medical marijuana’s march of progress can be slowed.
However, with no apparent Constitutional issues on the horizon, medical marijuana’s time appears to have come to Alabama, which means it’s your time to act.
Don’t want to be left out of the benefits only medical marijuana can provide? Well, you can keep up with medical marijuana news, including challenges to the law, if you keep up with our blog, and learn what you need to know to get your own Alabama Marijuana Card here!
*UPDATE On May 17, 2021, Governor Kay Ivey signed SB 46 into law, making medical marijuana in Alabama legal effective immediately! Check out our post about it by clicking here.
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