MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Three police officers are among advocates who appear to be moving closer to achieving what initially was a political longshot: legalizing the use of a marijuana derivative in an election year when Alabama legislators are concerned about the implications of every vote.
On Tuesday, three legislators unveiled a new version of their bill to allow the use of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to treat severe epileptic seizures. The new version, backed by key legislative leaders, would provide the oil through a $1 million appropriation to the Department of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for a research study. The bill breezed through the Senate 34-0 Tuesday night and now goes to the House for consideration, possibly as early as next week.
"This provides a good, safe way to go about getting our children some help," said Dustin Chandler, a Pelham police officer whose 3-year-old daughter Carly suffers from frequent epileptic seizures.
The police officer worked on the legislation with Republican Rep. Mike Ball, a retired state trooper; Republican Rep. Allen Farley, a retired assistant sheriff; and Republican Sen. Paul Sanford, a barbecue restaurant owner.
"I think of our team as three cops and a barbecue guy," Ball said.
"It's the most unlikely group you'll ever find to carry a bill to do with marijuana," Farley added.
The legislators said they began the session thinking there was no way colleagues would vote for anything connected to marijuana during an election year when the issue might be used against them by an opponent. They figured they would raise the idea this year and then push it again in 2015 after the election. But they said their law-enforcement background encouraged other legislators to take a second look, and then families with children with severe epilepsy began repeatedly visiting the Legislature to work for the bill's passage.
They started out with a bill that would give legal protection to families that used the marijuana derivative, which is currently illegal in Alabama. Then House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, reached out to UAB to get the medical center involved and make sure the program had safeguards. Proponents also promised a $1 million appropriation through the state education budget. That resulted in the new version of the bill Tuesday that is backed by legislative leaders. The bill limits the research project and use of CBD oil to five years, when the Legislature will have to evaluate whether to continue it.
Democratic Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, voted for the bill and said he's ready to defend his vote in an election year. "We are not legalizing marijuana, although I know some political spin masters give us a few shots," he said.
Southern Baptist minister Joe Godfrey, executive director of the church-based Alabama Citizen Action Program, said the group likes the new bill because it doesn't open the door to wider marijuana use.
Senate Majority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia, predicted the bill will sail through the Legislature. "I believe in this bill," he said.
The chairman of the neurology department at UAB, Dr. David Standaert, said UAB's research will focus on ways to prevent seizures. "There is growing evidence from a number of scientific studies that cannabidiol is an effective treatment to control epilepsy and other neurological disorders that produce serious, debilitating, or life-threatening seizures," he said.
Sherry Gibbs of Madison, who has been at the Statehouse repeatedly with her 19-month-old granddaughter Charlotte Dalton, said the bill gives her hope of celebrating the normal things in life, like a daily bath.
"We couldn't even give her a bath without a seizure," she said.