Alabama’s medical marijuana program was built on earnest goodwill for residents, but remains mired by aimless regulators
Having just written a brief recap of the many problems with Alabama’s medical marijuana program, one thing that stands out is the absurd lack of care the regulators have repeatedly shown to the public and prospective businesses.
Governor Kay Ivy signed into law the Darren Wesley “Ato” Hall Compassion Act, which legalizes and regulates medical cannabis, on May 17, 2021. More than two and a half years later, the state still does not have licensed, operational cannabis businesses or authorized patients.
Twice now regulators have issued licenses, only to revoke them and overhaul the competitive scoring procedures. A third round of licensing prompted additional lawsuits and could face more delays in the actual launch. Each round of licensing has proven to be a comedy of errors that makes me question the regulators’ competence.
The first attempt saw 21 licenses awarded and then indefinitely suspended just days later after several applicants pointed out discrepancies in the scoring process. The second attempt awarded 24 licenses, mostly to the same applicants as the first round, but leaving four previous winners — Verano Holdings, Alabama Secure Transport, James Gang Dispensary and ALA Labs — without licenses. Multiple lawsuits were filed by the scorned applicants after the second attempt. The commissioners have repeatedly been accused of making deals behind closed doors.
After the second attempt, the commission overhauled the scoring system to include in-person proposals. And it didn’t go well. Many applicants complained that the proposals seemingly replaced the previous scoring entirely.
Enchanted Green, one of the applicants for a processing license, receive the second-highest score in each of the first two licensing rounds; however, on the third round, the company tied for fourth. According to a lawsuit filed by Enchanted Green, when the tie was announced, one of the commissioners pulled a bowl from underneath the podium, reached in, drew a name for the company that would receive the license and declared that the commissioners were not going to vote to break the tie.
After investing more than a year in the application process, paying a $40,000 application fee and winning the license twice, Enchanted Green was left empty-handed by a game of chance that was allegedly introduced at the whim of a couple commissioners.
When I see three attempts to issue licenses go so wrong over such an extended period of time, I have to wonder why. Why is it so difficult to analyze these applications and issue these licenses? I usually try to avoid the obvious speculations: that the commissioners don’t care, that they’re dragging their feet because they oppose the legislation, or that they make weird licensing recommendations because they have their own hidden financial agenda.
It’s also important to note that this isn’t a “medical program” with an exaggerated wink. It isn’t a program where Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson have products on the shelves and Soulja Boy is a guest budtender for the day. This is tablets, tincture, suppositories. This is cancer, Parkinson’s and Crohn’s (although depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain will likely make up the majority of participants).
To be fair, Alabama isn’t the first state to screw up its licensing.
It’s also not the first state where regulators seem to care more about the companies being licensed than the people being treated.
With Florida, everyone knew the public was getting screwed. Officials were so up-front about keeping the opportunity away from the public from the beginning that it was somewhat accepted.
Illinois has been ridiculous in terms of licensing adult-use cannabis businesses and, yeah, screw all those regulators who were trying to capitalize on the issuance of licenses — but at least they weren’t doing so at the expense of suffering people. The same with Michigan and that weird sex-worker scandal where one individual was brazen enough to not only sell licenses on the side, but also included sex with strippers as a piece of the negotiation.
I can’t really say why I expected Alabama to be different. I honestly have always had a romanticized vision of Southern states, where life moves a little slower, where people are unusually polite and common sense prevails over the oppressive Northern bureaucracies I have to live with.
Alabama Representative Laura Hall introduced the medical marijuana bill in 2005. It was named after her son, “Ato” Hall, who died from AIDS shortly before she took office. After the governor signed the bill, Hall took to the House floor to explain that her son struggled with the only medication available to him at the time to such an extent that he chose to die rather than go on taking it.
“He finally said, ‘Enough is enough, I may get my T-cells back and I can function, but I can’t do it on this medication,’” Hall said in a 2021 speech. “It was then that I started talking to my friend, Lamar Higgins, and I said ‘Lord, Ato is going to die.’ He said, ‘You have to honor his wishes.’ And I did, but I had always believed if there had been something else that he could have taken, something else that would have helped him, he might have been living today.”
It’s touching to think how far this woman went to honor her son, enduring nearly two decades of hard work and setbacks to finally see the bill passed into law.
All of that goodwill is finally going to come to fruition, but not until the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission decides who gets a license.
The commissioners have already attempted and failed to award licenses twice, and based on their most recent attempt, I am pretty sure they haven’t learned anything.