To the surprise of many, the Alabama Legislature nearly legalized medical marijuana in the state during its 2019 session, with the Senate passing a legalization bill 17-6. Ultimately, however, that bill stalled in committee in the House and, in the final days of the session, the Legislature approved a compromise measure that established a Medical Cannabis Study Commission. The commission – composed of 18 members appointed by various state government officials and agencies – must hold a minimum of three public hearings to hear from patients and families, physicians and other healthcare providers, as well as from members of the public who have interests or concerns regarding the legalization of medical marijuana in Alabama. Generally speaking, the commission is charged with examining the laws and regulations of the federal government and of other states relating to the medical use of marijuana, and the commission must submit a report and proposed legislation to the Legislature by December 1, 2019.

On Aug. 13, the commission held its first meeting in Montgomery. Sen. Tim Melson, the sponsor of the medical marijuana legislation that passed the Senate, was elected chair of the commission at the meeting’s opening and proclaimed that the commission’s purpose is to “come up with a bill that can provide medical cannabis to those who need it and keep it out of the hands of those who don’t.” Much of the meeting consisted of a presentation by an attorney from the Alabama Legislative Services Office who provided a comprehensive overview of the bill legalizing medical marijuana that passed the Senate but ultimately stalled in the House.

On Sept. 9, the commission held its second meeting in Montgomery. The majority of the meeting centered on a presentation by Thomas Eden, a member of the commission who discussed the impact that medical cannabis potentially could have in the workplace if Alabama adopts a medical cannabis regime. The presentation examined how employers in other states currently handle employment concerns surrounding medical cannabis cardholder employees. After the presentation, Sen. Melson acknowledged that protecting employers will be at the forefront of any medical cannabis regime in Alabama; however, he expressed that the commission must strike the appropriate balance between protecting employers while also ensuring that appropriate patients are able to obtain medical cannabis.

So, what does this mean for the prospects of medical marijuana in Alabama? It seems likely that the commission will recommend the legalization of medical marijuana for certain qualifying conditions under a system that is heavily regulated. Medical marijuana supporters should take Sen. Melson’s statement as a positive sign that the commission’s report will be one favorable to their cause. The time and attention to detail devoted to the overview of the bill that passed the Senate during the last session seems to be a clear indication that it will serve as the starting point for any legislation proposed by the commission. The focus now seems to be on marshalling the committee’s considerable expertise in medicine, law, and public policy to ensure that any such legislation follows the best practices learned from the experiences of sister states. Whether the Alabama Legislature ultimately adopts that proposed legislation will surely be one of the more closely watched issues in the 2020 session.

These meetings did yield potential topics of future in-depth discussion for the commissioners: Which medical conditions will be “qualifying conditions” for which medical marijuana will be available, what is the proper nomenclature of the product, how much research funding will be available, and what types of delivery systems will be permissible in Alabama? On the first point, commissioners recognized that chronic pain is a condition which states have taken different approaches to, but Sen. Melson made it clear at the conclusion of the second meeting that terminal illnesses should not be the only qualifying conditions. On the second point, several members voiced their concerns that by naming the product “medical marijuana,” it poses a threat of misleading youth who may think that the product is harmless and who may have the inability to appreciate the dangers of cannabis at a young age. As to the third potential topic, the commission addressed the opportunity for cannabis research to take place at the university level. The last topic rendered substantial discussion about whether smokable marijuana was an effective delivery system.

Sen. Melson, Vice-Chair Dr. Steven Stokes, and several other members indicated support for medical marijuana generally; however, there are members of the commission who were more guarded about their opinions at the first two meetings. That may change in upcoming meetings, particularly from commission members who represent state law enforcement interests.

The commission scheduled its next meeting in Montgomery for Oct. 3.

The original article, "Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission holds first two hearings," was first published in the Birmingham Business Journal on Sept. 23, 2019.