Dr. Steven Stokes was once skeptical about medical marijuana. But the “semiretired” oncologist from Dothan has changed his mind after volunteering at a clinic in Marianna, Florida, where medical cannabis is available.
“I think it helps them,” Stokes said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s a good appetite stimulant … it’s an effective treatment.”
Whether Stokes and other doctors will be able to recommend cannabis for patients in Alabama could depend on the deliberations of the Medical Cannabis Study Commission, a 15-member body authorized by the Alabama Legislature last spring after a bill legalizing medical marijuana floundered in the Alabama House. The commission, of which Stokes is a part, has its first meeting scheduled on Tuesday.
Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, who sponsored the original medical marijuana bill but agreed to changes afterward, said Monday he hopes the commission will “get something out there that will be appropriate for this state.”
“I think we’ll end up with a bill that will be accepted and passed,” he said. “I’ve got better things to do if we’re not going to be serious — if we don’t pass a bill this time.”
The commission must hold three public meetings on the subject and examine a range of issues related to medical cannabis, from current laws governing marijuana to its use among patients. The commission must submit a report and recommended legislation to the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem by Dec. 1.
Roughly 33 states have either legalized marijuana or allowed the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Alabama allows the use of cannabidiol (CBD) oil in an ongoing study of its health effects at UAB.
Melson sponsored legislation last year in the spring that would have authorized medical marijuana in Alabama, starting in 2021. The bill authorized the drug's use for 12 different medical conditions, from cancer to opioid addiction to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but only if a patient had recommendations from two physicians and was not seeing results from traditional treatments. Those taking medical marijuana would have to carry a card costing $65 a year.
The Senate approved the bill 17 to 6 on May 9, but it ran into a storm of questions from House members who raised questions about the dosages used and enforcement of the law. Melson and his supporters agreed to scale the bill back to a study commission.
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The commission will have to look at several questions, including regulation of medical marijuana producers. It will also have members who don’t necessarily agree with bringing medical cannabis to the state. Thomas Eden, an Auburn-based employment attorney appointed to the commission by Attorney General Steve Marshall, said in a phone interview Monday that employers faced “a huge workplace risk” when medical marijuana is available. He said he had concerns about an “impaired population” working in dangerous circumstances.
“The problem is there’s no good scientific way to determine impairment based on marijuana,” he said. “It’s not like an alcohol test where there’s a defined period of time where the alcohol will continue to remain in the bloodstream.”
Stokes said he believes those who get medical marijuana need to be under supervision by a physician, to ensure there are no interactions with other drugs. But like many other physicians, he hoped that the availability of medical marijuana would allow him to reduce patients’ need for addictive drugs, like opioids.
The oncologist also said he wanted to bring the cost of medical marijuana to the commission’s attention. Stokes said in Florida, where a medical marijuana card costs $75, recommended dosages of medical marijuana can cost between $30 and $50 a week. Insurance does not cover those costs, and Stokes said he was especially interested in getting a reduction for veterans who suffer PTSD.
“It’s something to cover the cost for people who need it and make sure it’s controlled, so we don’t create another problem like opioids,” he said.
Melson, who was once a skeptic, said there were “plenty of articles” on the efficacy of medical cannabis.
“When you get in situations and people have terminal illnesses and chronic debilitating illnesses and alternatives out there when nothing else works, it’s just time,” he said.