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By: Gray Gilmore
Member, American Journal of Trial Advocacy
As of now, thirty-four states in the United States allow cannabis to be prescribed for medicinal purposes. In addition, Washington D.C. and eleven other states have passed expansive laws that legalize cannabis for recreational use. Not on either of those lists, however, is the state of Alabama. Alabama has banned the drug since 1931 when some of the harshest cannabis laws in the United States were passed. A person caught with a few grams of marijuana in Alabama faces incarceration, thousands of dollars in fines and court costs, lose their driver’s license, and experience difficulty obtaining a job and financial aid for college. It does not matter what the person’s intentions are with the drug.
Nevertheless, earlier in 2019, Senator Tim Melson’s cannabis bill passed the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee by a unanimous 11-0 vote. The bill would have revised how the state defined cannabis-related offenses. However, the bill stalled in committee in the House, but the Alabama Legislature approved a compromise measure to establish the Medical Cannabis Study Commission. The Commission is tasked with holding a minimum of three public hearings to hear from interested members of the public, patients and families, and physicians and other healthcare providers. They must submit a report to the Legislature by December 1, 2019. In the next couple of months, after the Commission gives their report, Alabama will be faced with the decision of whether to allow cannabis for medicinal purposes or to continue the war on cannabis.
Why does this matter?
There are at least two reasons this is a significant matter. First, cannabis has the potential to treat “cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis (MS), as well as ‘medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to the above qualifying conditions,’ such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every single day in the United States 46 people die from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Cannabis has the potential to replace strong opioids. Policymakers in Colorado, Illinois, and New York have passed legislation that allows health professionals to recommend cannabis, as opposed to highly addictive and potentially deadly pain pills. Other states allow patients addicted to opioids to qualify for a medical marijuana card.
But many healthcare professionals and medical experts strongly oppose such policies. They maintain that science has not yet proven that cannabis can deliver the same pain-killing effects as prescription drugs. They also point out that science has not shown that cannabis can help opioid addicts break the addiction. A similar concern is shared by at least one member of the Commission, Stephen Taylor. Taylor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and addiction psychiatrist, worries that calling cannabis a medicine could increase the use among teenagers. In addition, he notes that cannabis is not a legitimate medicine because it has not been validated as a medicine. There is, indeed, a problem with tracking down solid research on medical cannabis in the United States. It’s because doing the research is a felony.
This is problem that our neighbor state, Florida, has run into as well. Many scientists desire to conduct research on the drug, but it is extremely difficult even in states like Colorado that have legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes. Researchers who desire to perform clinical trials must apply for a Schedule 1 DEA research license. This is because the Cannabis sativa plant has been classified as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance alongside heroin and LSD since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Then, once they are approved for the license, researchers may only obtain the cannabis from one place—the federal crop at University of Mississippi, which is overseen by the National Institute for Drug Abuse. Waiting on the research is not a viable option for many patients. The quality of life of chronically ill patients is at stake.
Secondly, cannabis prohibition is estimated to cost the state of Alabama $22 million every year, according to the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) publication, Alabama’s War on Marijuana, also discusses the impact on the state other than just money. For example, cannabis prohibition causes a dangerous backlog in forensic tests that “diverts resources from more serious crimes.” As a result of cannabis prohibition and enforcement, thousands of people are left ensnared in the criminal justice system—many of which are African American.
The SPLC reports that, despite the overwhelming national support for legalizing cannabis and studies of cannabis being far safer than alcohol and cigarettes, Alabama’s cannabis laws remain unchanged while other states, including Mississippi, are adopting a more “commonsense” approach. The biggest problem with Alabama’s cannabis laws are that they are ambiguous, leaving law enforcement broad discretion on how the laws are enforced. The result is uneven justice.
In Alabama, drug trafficking is the only cannabis-related crime with a defined weight threshold. If an individual is found to have any part of the cannabis plant, and the weight is in excess of 2.2 pounds, the person must be sentenced to a minimum of three years and a $25,000 fine. Therefore, because of the ambiguity, prosecutors are left with the discretion to charge individuals with anything less than 2.2 pounds with possession for personal use (a Class A misdemeanor), possession for a purpose other than personal use (a Class C felony), manufacturing in the first degree (a Class A felony), manufacturing in the second degree (a Class B felony), or distribution (a Class B felony). None of the previous mention any specific amount or weight of cannabis, but range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class A felony. “In other words, two people can be caught with the same amount of marijuana can be charged with different crimes.”
For a substance that is used to treat cancer and other serious illness in many states, Alabama’s cannabis laws remain exceedingly harsh. Not only could Alabama save approximately $22 million if the cannabis laws were amended, but the state could see growth in the economy. Currently, Alabama’s overall ranking is 49, and Alabama’s economy is ranked 45 out of all 50 states. According to recent Forbes article, “It is not a secret that, beyond the arguments related to the medical benefits of the plant and the need to control the black market, the legalization of cannabis has huge economic implications.” In 2015 alone, cannabis sales in Colorado resulted in the state collecting over $135 million in taxes and fees on both medicinal and recreational cannabis. The legalization of cannabis, whether medicinal, recreational, or both, could be a major job generator for the state of Alabama. Cannabis businesses across the country pay collectively hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local taxes, cannabis workers are paid wages that they use to spend money at local grocery stores and restaurants, and real estate and construction activity is generated for each new cannabis business, particularly cultivation facilities.
there is an opportunity for Alabama to make significant changes to the current
cannabis laws that would have tremendous impact on those patients suffering
from particular illnesses, those adversely impacted by the current harsh and
ambiguous laws, and the state as a whole. The Medical Cannabis Study Commission has
about a month remaining to hold hearings and develop a report for the Alabama
legislature to help convince them one way or the other.
 Alabama’s War on Marijuana, Southern Poverty Law Ctr. (Oct. 18, 2018), https://www.splcenter.org/20181018/alabamas-war-marijuana.
 Nick Lindsey, Alabama Senate Committee Unanimously Approves Major Marijuana Law Reform Bill, High Times (Apr. 18, 2019), https://hightimes.com/news/alabama-senate-committee-unanimously-approves-major-marijuana-law-reform-bill/.
 Whitt Steineker & Jay Wright, Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission Holds First Two Hearings, Birmingham Bus. J. (Sept. 23, 2019), https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2019/09/23/alabama-medical-cannabis-commission-holds-first.html.
 Jessi Smith, Medical Marijuana: A Catch-22 for Florida Residents, Researchers, 83 Degrees (June 18, 2019), https://www.83degreesmedia.com/features/medical-marijuana-conundrum-remains-in-Florida-061819.aspx.
 Opioid Overdose, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing/overdose-death-maps.html (last visited Nov. 10, 2019).
 Sophie Quinton, Where Doctors Can Recommend Marijuana to Replace Opioids, Pew Charitable Trusts (Aug. 13, 2019), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2019/08/13/where-doctors-can-recommend-marijuana-to-replace-opioids.
 Mike Cason, No Such Thing As Medical Marijuana, Alabama Cannabis Commission Told, AL.com (Sept. 9, 2019), https://www.al.com/news/2019/09/no-such-thing-as-medical-marijuana-alabama-cannabis-commission-told.html.
 Smith, supra note 6.
 Alabama’s War on Marijuana, supra note 1.
 Ala. Code § 13A-12-231(1)(a) (2015).
 Ala. Code § 13A-12-214 (2015).
 Ala. Code § 13A-12-213(b) (2015); Alabama’s War on Marijuana, supra note 1.
 Ala. Code § 13A-12-218(b) (2015).
 Ala. Code § 13A-12-217(b) (2015).
 Alabama’s War on Marijuana, supra note 1.
 Ana G. Valdivia, The Economic Implications Behind the Cannabis Legalization Debate, Forbes (Mar. 11, 2019, 3:48 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/anagarciavaldivia/2019/03/11/the-economic-implications-behind-the-cannabis-legalization-debate/#4a13bef95c56.
 Mrinalini Krishna, The Economic Benefits of Legalizing Weed, Investopedia, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/insights/110916/economic-benefits-legalizing-weed.asp (last updated June 25, 2019).
 Eli McVey, U.S. Cannabis Industry’s Economic Impact Shows No Signs of Slowing, Missouri Med. Cannabis Trade Ass’n, https://www.mocanntrade.org/about/economic-impact/ (last visited Oct. 24, 2019).