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Medical marijuana in Alabama still a long way from availability

Dr. Angela Martin (copy)

Dr. Angela Martin talks in her office in 2017. Martin has been nominated to the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth.

Fourteen Alabamians, including an Anniston pediatrician, will guide the state’s fledgling medical marijuana program. But they can’t dramatically speed up the process.

Embedded in the Darren Wesley “Ato” Hall Compassion Act, which Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law May 17, are timeline provisions that could delay the legal use of medical marijuana in Alabama until September 2022, if not later.

The reason: Alabama is new to the marijuana-growing game.

Thus, the 14 doctors, farmers, lawyers, bankers, judges and business executives recently nominated to the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission resemble house builders given a vacant plot and an incomplete architectural plan. Everything — from underground utilities to a concrete foundation — has to be built. And that takes time.

The commission, which includes Dr. Angela Martin, an Anniston pediatrician, received specific guidelines from the state Legislature, included in the act that made Alabama the 37th state to legalize medical marijuana. Chief among them: Only qualified health-related conditions will qualify for medical marijuana in Alabama, and lawmakers explicitly included wording that forbids the Hall Compassion Act from becoming a legal gateway to recreational cannabis use.

The Alabama Compassion Act is named for Darren Wesley “Ato” Hall, son of state Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, who died of AIDS when he was 25. Rep. Hall has been one of the Legislature’s proponents of medical marijuana legalization.

Alabama residents who qualify — through a doctor’s recommendation — will be required to apply for a medical marijuana card, which will cost $65.

“It is not the intent of this chapter to provide for or enable recreational use of marijuana in the State of Alabama,” lawmakers wrote. “Notwithstanding any medical benefit of cannabis or cannabis derivatives, the recreational use of marijuana remains a significant threat to public health and safety. Allowing the cultivation, processing, dispensing, and use of cannabis for medical use without appropriate safeguards to prevent unlawful diversion for recreational use would pose a risk to public health and safety.”

The commission and other Alabama state agencies also were given several deadlines. The Alabama Board of Medical Examiners has until Dec. 1 to adopt requirements relating to prescribing physicians. The key deadline arrives Sept. 1, 2022 — the date on which the commission must have installed a system that allows Alabamians to apply for licenses to grow, transport and sell cannabis, not to mention requirements regarding labeling, advertising and marketing of medical cannabis.

Growers can’t apply for licenses and begin production until the commission establishes that system. And without marijuana, there is no medical cannabis for doctors to prescribe.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture will license and regulate cannabis cultivation. Lawmakers are also requiring that growers reside in the state, in an attempt “to create within Alabama a wholly intrastate system for the cultivation, processing, and distribution of medical cannabis in the interest of protecting its own residents from the danger that recreational cannabis poses.”

Lawmakers also did not weaken employers’ ability to determine if they will hire or retain workers who legally use medical marijuana. The Alabama Compassion Act doesn’t force employers to allow medical cannabis in the workplace, and it allows employers to hire or fire workers who legally use the drug for medicinal purposes. 

The law also allows employers to drug-test workers for legal medical marijuana use.

In the law, legislators wrote that “it is important to balance the needs of employers to have a strong functioning workforce with the needs of employees who will genuinely benefit from using cannabis for a medical use in a manner that makes the employee a productive employee.”

Thus, the Alabama Compassion Act does not “require any employer to permit, accommodate, or allow the use of medical cannabis, or to modify any job or working conditions of any employee who engages in the use of medical cannabis or for any reason seeks to engage in the use of medical cannabis.” 

Martin is one of five doctors on the commission, joining William Saliski Jr., a Montgomery pulmonologist; Steven Stokes, a radiation oncologist from Decatur; Eric Jensen, a Brownsboro biochemist; and Jerzy Szaflarski, director of the UAB Epilepsy Center.

Though they’re physicians, that group will not decide which conditions qualify for medical cannabis use. The Alabama Compassion Act includes a lengthy list of qualifying conditions: Autism treatments, panic disorders, depression, certain cancer-related issues, HIV/AIDS-related conditions, terminal illnesses, epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, Crohn’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The law does not qualify certain chronic pain diagnoses, for example, for legal medical cannabis. 

Also on the commission are Sam Blakemore, a Birmingham pharmacist; Headland banker Dwight Gamble; Birmingham health-care attorney Loree Skelton; Rex Vaughn, a Madison County farmer; retired circuit judge Charles Price of Montgomery; Taylor Hatchet, a Chilton County farm owner; the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Dion Robinson; and James Harwell, president of Montgomery’s Green Thumb Nursery. Katherine Robertson, chief counsel for the state attorney general’s office, is a non-voting advisory member.

The Hall Compassion Act called for the nominations to come from Ivey, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth and state department heads. Martin’s nomination came from the lieutenant governor.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.