MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A medical marijuana bill cleared its first floor vote Thursday in the Alabama Legislature as advocates hope to make headway after years of setbacks.
The Alabama Senate vote 22-10 for the bill by Republican Senator Tim Melson after five hours of debate. The legislation now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.
The proposal would allow people with a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana for 15 conditions — including cancer, anxiety, and chronic pain. It also would allow them to purchase cannabis products at one of 34 licensed dispensaries. The bill would allow marijuana in forms such as pills, skin patches, and creams but not in smoking or vaping products.
The Senate approval was a moment of optimism for medical marijuana advocates who for years made little headway in the conservative-leaning state. In 2013, a medical marijuana bill won the so-called “Shroud Award” for the “deadest” bill that year in the House of Representatives.
Melson said he is optimistic about the bill's chances this legislative session.
“Things have changed. We learn as we go in life and people have realized there are benefits," Melson said before the debate.
An anesthesiologist by training, Melson said he grew to support the idea of medicinal marijuana after hearing the stories of people who had been helped by it. Advocates packed an earlier public hearing on the bill to tell lawmakers their stories.
The legislation faced some opposition on the Senate floor.
Senator Larry Stutts, an obstetrician, said medical marijuana laws bypass the normal processes for drug approval. Senator Arthur Orr, a Republican from Decatur, stayed at the Senate microphone for more than an hour, introducing amendments.
Republican Senator Dan Roberts said he could support an expansion of Alabama’s existing law allowing the use of CBD oil, but not a full medical marijuana law.
“We have an FDA that has a process. ... I just believe we are doing irreparable damage to the children of our state and to our state by doing what we are doing," Roberts said.
The bill also faces opposition from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. He sent lawmakers a letter expressing his opposition, noting that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
The bill faces an uncertain future as it heads to the House of Representatives. In prior sessions, a Senate-passed bill stalled in the House.
“We are just in a wait and see mode," House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said.