The Medical Cannabis Study Commission met for the first time today. The panel heard a presentation on the specifics of the bill and on policies in 33 other states that have approved medical marijuana.
The commission also heard from Cynthia Atkinson of Auburn, wife of beloved Montgomery television meteorologist Dan Atkinson, who died of Parkinson’s disease in 2017.
Cynthia Atkinson said she and Dan traveled to Colorado in 2015 seeking relief from his severe leg cramps.
“He had Parkinson’s for over 10 years,” Cynthia said. “At times his legs, most of the time for the last three years, his legs would feel like he was in vice grips.”
Cynthia said CBD patches that contained THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, relieved Dan’s cramps. Cynthia said she tried a patch because she wanted to make sure her husband was not being overmedicated and determined he was not.
They contacted the manufacturer of the patches to see if they could take them back to Alabama but learned that was illegal. Cynthia said Dan relied on opioid medications during the final stages of his disease.
“He fought the good fight,” Cynthia said. “But I do believe that there would have been a lot less side effects as a result of trying something that’s much more natural. It’s a plant, it’s not a synthetic chemical.”
The 15-member study commission is tasked with studying medical marijuana and making a recommendation to the Legislature. The panel includes representatives from the fields of medicine, law enforcement, drug addiction treatment, agriculture, pharmacy, and others.
The commission today picked Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, as chairman. Melson sponsored the medical marijuana bill earlier this year. He’s an anesthesiologist and medical researcher.
Melson said he would not have supported medical marijuana three years ago but has seen enough research to believe it holds the potential to relieve symptoms for a number of ailments that cause terminal and chronic disease.
Melson said the study commission’s job is to help devise a plan that will allow those who need medical marijuana to receive it while keeping it out of the hands of others.
Melson said he would not support marijuana for recreational use. Cynthia Atkinson also said her interest was only in medical use. She and Dan had reached out to public officials about medical marijuana. She said Dan would be doing so today if he could.
“He wanted to work on something done to have this legalized for medicinal purposes,” Atkinson said. “And that is the primary thing that I am focused on, from a Christian-base stance. We both were strong Christians.”
At today’s meeting, the commission heard a presentation from Paula Greene, an attorney for the Legislative Services Agency, about Melson’s bill. The Senate passed a version that would have set up a system for people to receive medical cannabis cards. It would have allowed doctors to recommend the use of cannabis to treat the symptoms associated with about a dozen conditions listed in the bill, including: autism spectrum disorder; epilepsy; cancer; degenerative or pervasive neurological disorders; glaucoma; HIV/AIDS; multiple sclerosis; muscle disorders, including those associated with muscle spasms; opioid addiction; pain syndromes or pain associated with other medical conditions; and post traumatic stress disorder.
But that plan ran into resistance in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers determined the issue needed more study. The bill was changed to set up the commission and it became law.
Shelby County District Attorney Jill Lee, a commission member, said she has seen the ills of marijuana during a career of prosecuting drug crimes. She said she intends to listen and learn as she formulates an opinion on how Alabama should proceed on medical marijuana.
“My entire career has been prosecuting marijuana cases,” said Lee, who is president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association. “We’re in a different day and I recognize that medical marijuana has its place and its purpose. I just want to make sure that proper controls are in place so that there’s no harm.”
Commission member Dr. Steven Stokes of Dothan is a radiation oncologist who’s been practicing for 32 years. He prescribes medical marijuana to patients at his practice in Marianna, Fla. Florida has legalized medical marijuana.
Stokes said he began prescribing it because the patients asked for it. He said it helps cancer patients suffering from nausea, loss of appetite, neuropathy, and pain.
“It’s just another drug or treatment that we can use to benefit people,” Stokes said. “I’m glad that Alabama is being so progressive. I’m surprised, to be honest.”
Medical marijuana can reduce the dependence on opioids for cancer patients suffering from pain, Stokes said. He said Alabama should be careful in the way it implements a medical marijuana policy.
“I think the patients see a need for it,” Stokes said. “It’s shown to be medically indicated in some conditions. We need to be careful. We have an opioid problem now. We don’t need to create a medical marijuana problem also.”
Other members of the commission at today’s meeting were:
Dr. Martin Bebin, a professor in the Department of Neurology at the UAB medical school; Brett Bloomston, criminal defense attorney in Birmingham; Thomas Eden, an employment lawyer who specializes in drug and alcohol testing policies; Virginia Guy, executive director of the Drug Education Council; State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris; pharmacist Dexter Hearn; Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Angelo Della Manna; Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Farmers Federation; Dr. Tony McGrath, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital; Dr. Jerzy Szaflarski, a neurology professor at UAB and director of the Division of Epilepsy; and Rex Vaughn, a farmer in the Huntsville area.