The changes may not be enough to address local law enforcement concerns, however.
Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, filed a bill this legislative session to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses only. The Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition, which composed the bill, is working on amendments to address concerns from other lawmakers. One amendment would add a 5 percent tax to medical marijuana sales that would be distributed to city and county law enforcement agencies in the state to combat the trafficking and production of illegal drugs. Another would define the relationship between patients and doctors to curb possible abuse of the system.
“That’s being done so a person cannot just walk in and give money and get a marijuana card,” said Ron Crumpton, co-president and executive director of the Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition, formed in June for the sole purpose of legalizing medicinal marijuana in Alabama. “The change will require a doctor to do what he normally does when handling prescriptions.”
Crumpton said the bill and the amendments had garnered positive responses from other state legislators.
“I’m real optimistic we’ll get it passed this year,” he said.
Among other things, the legislation lists the medical conditions that can be treated with marijuana and indicates the drug can only be purchased legally at mandated marijuana distribution centers. People given prescriptions for medicinal marijuana will be required to carry identification cards authorized by the Alabama Department of Public Health. The bill also states a patient can possess no more than 8 ounces of marijuana at a time or no more than 12 marijuana plants at a time.
To Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, legalizing the ability to own and grow marijuana plants has him most concerned.
“Under this bill, I can grow it at home,” Amerson said. “Can I grow cocaine at home or opiates? No and there is a good reason for that — it’s because I’d be self-medicating.”
Amerson said the bill was turning a blind eye to the medical industry’s pharmacy system. He added that legalizing growth of marijuana could lead to increased abuse of the drug among teenagers.
“For young people, the number one source from where they get marijuana is free from family and friends,” Amerson said.
According to a study last year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 55.6 percent of teenagers between 12 and 14 years old get marijuana free from their friends while 10.1 percent get it from family.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) does not support current forms of medical marijuana policies in the country. Currently, 16 states allow medical marijuana use. According to the NIDA’s website, though studies have shown marijuana contains active ingredients that relieve pain and other ailments, marijuana itself is an unlikely medication candidate.
The site states marijuana is an unpurified plant containing chemicals with unknown health effects and that it is typically smoked, further contributing to adverse effects. The site also states the promise in marijuana lies instead in designing tailored medications, developed from marijuana’s active components, for specific conditions or symptoms with improved risk and benefit profiles.
The NIDA states effects of marijuana use include short-term memory loss, loss of reaction time, altered judgment and mood changes. However, a January study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham indicates that occasional use of marijuana apparently affects lung capacity less than smoking cigarettes. An occasional user would be someone who smoked a joint a day for seven years, said Dr. Stefan Kertesz, associate professor at UAB and senior author of the study.
“This study did not include people who smoke enough to end up in addiction treatment,” Kertesz said. “This was a survey of the general population.”
The UAB study compiled data from a 20-year study on causes of cardiovascular disease funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
“With marijuana, we saw airflow actually improve a little bit relative to cumulative use,” Kertesz said. “And we also looked at tobacco smoke, which has a very predictable relationship to air flow — it goes down when smoking increases.”
However, Kertesz noted, while marijuana smokers showed increased lung capacity in the study, that did not suggest that marijuana improves lung function.
“The act of smoking marijuana could just train users to test better,” Kertesz said. “You have to take a real deep breath and blow for the air flow test, which is very similar to how people smoke marijuana, as opposed to cigarettes.”
The Alabama bill does not address the controversy surrounding the use of marijuana for medical purposes. However, it does address problems of abuse in the system that other states with legal medical marijuana have faced, such as Colorado.
That state legalized medical marijuana in 2000 and established a registry system for the drug. However, unlike Alabama’s bill, Colorado’s law did not specify what constituted a doctor-patient relationship.
“We had reports of people going into marijuana dispensaries, saying things like ‘I have an ear ache’ and getting an authorization form,” said Mark Salley, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the marijuana registry.
Salley added that in 2009, a court decision overturned a badly-worded section of the marijuana law, basically removing the five marijuana patient limit for caregivers in the state. With caregivers now allowed to have as many patients as they wanted, the number of marijuana dispensaries in the state and medical marijuana users exploded.
Salley said the number of registered medical marijuana users in Colorado increased to 41,107 in 2009 from 4,720 in 2008.
“Before that, the registry grew very slowly for years and years,” Salley said.
By the end of 2010, the number of registered users had increased to 88,920.
Almost two years ago, however, Colorado amended the law to address the problems, Salley said. After a peak of 127,816 registered users in July, the number has dropped and when last checked in August, was at 88,872 registered users.
Salley could not confirm that the drop was due to the changes in the law though.
“If you asked 10 different people you’ll get 10 different answers,” he said. “It could be that some people just no longer needed to use the marijuana.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star