A leading Republican governor’s candidate said Thursday that Alabama officials are pushing to establish a “drug cartel” to sell medical marijuana gummies in every Alabama community.
Tim James, a businessman and son of former Gov. Fob James, who is polling a distant second behind incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey, also criticized the state’s new system for being lenient in the training required for doctors who will eventually prescribe medical marijuana to patients.
He also said the law, approved by the Legislature last year, will lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“This is nothing but a bait and switch to desensitize and get recreational use started,” James said during a town hall forum hosted by the Common Sense Campaign tea party of Baldwin County at the Daphne Civic Center. “Their dream is recreational pot and that is where they are going.”
John McMillan, director of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, said James’s characterization of the law and how it’s being handled by his organization is a “mischaracterization.”
Alabama State Senator Tim Melson, R-Florence, an anesthesiologist who championed the legislation to legalize medical marijuana last year, also accused James of trying to embellish the law to create a political wedge issue in the governor’s race.
The legalization of recreational marijuana is mostly opposed by all the Republican candidates running for governor except for Springville Mayor Dave Thomas, who wants it legalized for recreational purposes.
A host of candidates, like James, outright oppose the state’s approach in legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. Alabama became the 37th state to do so last year.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 18 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. The medical marijuana bill approved last spring does not include recreational use.
“When you’re running for office, you need an issue and you need to pick out an Achilles heel,” said Melson. “I have nothing against Tim James. But being a doctor, we need alternatives.”
He added, “It’s easy to talk against it for the rhetoric of a campaign, but if you want to help people you take a more openminded view.”
But the candidates’ views toward medical marijuana ahead of the May 24 GOP primary harkens back to last year’s criticism of SB46, the bill that was approved in the Legislature and started an ongoing process toward a medical marijuana system in Alabama.
Opponents of the legislation included mostly religious conservatives who spent much of last year’s debate fretting about the prospects of recreational legalization. Supporters of medical marijuana repeatedly said the Alabama legislation does not touch upon recreational use whatsoever.
The Alabama law also prohibits the common recreational uses of marijuana – smoking, vaping or ingesting cannabis in baked goods. The legislation allows consumption only by a tablet, gelatins, or vaporized oils.
“I think my personal observation is people who are opposing it are saying that it opens the door for legalizing marijuana,” said McMillan, the state’s former treasurer. “We are all against that. The commission, the staff and everyone else. But we don’t know what the future holds for that. It’s a federal issue.”
James, during his visit to Daphne, did not address how medical marijuana will be consumed by patients. But he took issue with the training the state is setting up for doctors to get certified before they can prescribe medical marijuana.
“There is a long, hard journey to get that designation,” James said. “You have to sit at your computer at 8 in the morning, finish at noon and by lunch, you are now a marijuana doctor. It takes four hours.”
According to administrative rules governing physician certification, only practicing physicians in Alabama can apply for an Alabama Medical Cannabis Certification permit if they meet multiple requirements that includes the “proof of completion of a four-hour course related to medical cannabis.”
Permits have to be renewed annually and require that physicians complete within at least 24 months, a continuing medical education course related to medical marijuana.
Every two years, the physician has to complete a two-hour refresher course related to medical marijuana. The physicians also cannot advertise or promote that they practice “medical marijuana” or “medical cannabis.”
“They are medical doctors,” McMillan said. “They have years of training. Most of them already know about this.”
James criticized the state law for including the word, “dispensary,” saying a more accurate description is a “pot shop.”
He said that “pot shops” could pop up anywhere in the state.
And he said prescriptions, under the state law, can be written for almost any ailment.
James took issue with the medical requirements related to the state’s new law.
He said the products will be available to almost anyone who needs it and said the “only thing missing” from the list of conditions is a “stubbed toe.”
“There has to be a qualified condition,” he said. “It’s a chronic pain, not acute.”
Some of the afflictions qualifying for a medical marijuana prescription include cancer-related sickness, Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy, depression, Crohn’s Disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea or weight loss, Autism Spectrum Disorder, PTSD, and Tourette’s Syndrome.
McMillan said that James is misrepresenting the facts of what the commission is aiming for before substances are prescribed to patients next year.
McMillan suggested critics “read the bill,” referring to SB47.
He said the biggest misconception he continues to hear is that there will be a dispensary “on every corner.
McMillan said at a maximum, the law would allow for 37 dispensaries. The law also requires a city council or a county commission to approve a resolution before a dispensary can open within their jurisdiction.
“What we’re trying to do is have the safest and most secure and highest quality cannabis for folks who need it,” said McMillan.
A key deadline for the commission, McMillan said, is September 1. That’s the date when applications are expected to go out to would-be growers and distributors.
Once applications are submitted to the commission, the panel will have 60 days to decide if the state will grant them a license. Licensing is needed for cultivators, processors, dispensary operators, transporters, laboratories, and integrated facility owners.
“We want to have public hearings on this as well,” McMillan said. “That’s another time factor. You add those up, it will be next year before we have any products ready for the patients.”
James also criticized the program for allowing only cash purchases, and for not being set up to take credit card payments.
Said James, “The person selling (medical marijuana) is someone who used to be working at a Walmart, and he has zero medical training. He can’t take a credit card. Only cash. By state law, it’s a cash business. We are talking big money, crazy money.”
McMillan said the reason for the cash-only purchases is because insurance does not cover it.
“The doctors I’ve spoken to are extremely interested in getting certified to use this in their practice,” he said. “It’s for chronic pain and cancer. It’s extremely helpful for Parkinson’s and seizures. There are huge benefits.”
James said patients could be prescribed a large amount of product.
“The law says you can have over 70 doses of marijuana in your possession,” James said. “No one needs 70 doses.”
McMillan said James is referring to a maximum amount that is likely not to be in line with what a physician prescribes.
“It’s another misrepresentation,” McMillan said of James.
James also hit back on Ivey, saying she signed the medical marijuana bill into law despite opposition from law enforcement groups including Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. Ivey’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Over half of the district attorneys in the state of Alabama wrote a letter begging the not to do it and they did it anyway,” James said. “And these are Republicans.”