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Mike Ball: Where did we go wrong? Alabama patients are still waiting for medical cannabis

The best laid plans of mice and men almost always go awry, but that’s not a good reason to give up. Sir Edmund Hilary was not the first person to attempt to climb Mt. Everest, and the Wright Brothers were not the first ones to attempt to fly an airplane. History is full of difficult tasks that were accomplished as the result of multiple attempts, many of which occurred across multiple generations. Every effort we make toward a worthwhile goal is full of opportunity to move closer to success, but only for those who can figure out what didn’t work from previous attempts.

Ten years have passed since my eyes began opening to the enormous potential of cannabis for medical purposes. Until then, most of my previous experience with the plant came from a perspective that was almost entirely focused on those who abuse it or make an illegal profit from the black-market demand created by the politically fueled government overreaction to it. When we set our mind to seek evil, we are hindered from seeing good.

In 2014, the Alabama Legislature unanimously passed Carly’s Law to authorize and fund a UAB research team to study cannabis from a perspective untainted by the stigma that had been placed on it by short-sighted politicians, narrow-minded bureaucrats, and self-righteous do-gooders who only see harm because they refuse to look for anything else.

As my awareness of the multitude of suffering people who could gain relief from this remarkable plant grew, so did the burden it placed on my heart. I sought relief from hope that science, common sense, and compassion would inevitably lead us to adopt sound policy decisions regarding the medicinal use of cannabis. I had no idea that finding it would be so difficult and take so long.

Federal bureaucracies protecting the stigma with wads of red tape delayed the UAB research for over a year while people who could benefit from the medicinal use of cannabis continued to be denied access. In 2016 the legislature overwhelmingly passed Leni’s Law to at least provide those who suffered from certain conditions and their care givers limited protection from prosecution for possessing cannabis with low THC levels. It was a major struggle, but I could see the stigma was slowly shrinking.

As the regular legislative session of 2019 approached, the cannabis research at UAB was making great progress, and the authorization provided by Carly’s Law need to be extended. I had also discovered that someone slipped some ambiguous language into Leni’s Law during the hectic last days of the 2016 legislative session. As I began drafting legislation to address these issues, information from the UAB research as well as other sources convinced me of the necessity to create a statewide commission to regulate the growth, processing, and distribution of cannabis for medicinal use.

After careful consideration and with the aid of others that included retired legislators from states with experience with cannabis policy, State Sen. Tim Melson and I introduced legislation in 2019 that created the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission and outlined what seemed to be a practical regulatory structure. It should have passed that year, but the stigma was still strong, so we settled for legislation that created
the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission to study it more.

Although COVID thwarted our efforts in 2020, we finally passed the “Darren Wesley ‘Ato’ Hall Compassion Act” in 2021, allowing me to leave the legislature the following year with the satisfaction I had played a major role at least one worthwhile effort during my twenty years as a state representative. I don’t regret the effort and still believe it was worthwhile, but the proof is always in the pudding.

The 2021 legislation we passed is certainly not perfect, but I see nothing in it that should have kept it from doing what it was designed to do. I am flummoxed that it is now 2024 and Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission has yet to provide a single patient with cannabis for therapeutic use.

Ten years have passed since I began confronting the cannabis stigma on behalf of those who can gain medical benefit from it, and the power of that stigma has been in gradual but steady decline.

What made our plan go awry? Was it oversight, incompetence, greed, sabotage, corruption, or something else? I don’t know, but I do know that there is a multitude of patients who could benefit from the medicinal use of this plant that are waiting while a significant majority of the people of Alabama and their elected representative them are out of patience.

It is time to make this to happen, but it can’t happen until we put our finger on the cause of the failure and deal with it openly and decisively. This ain’t Mount Everest, but it sure feels like it to me.

Mike Ball is a retired Alabama State Trooper and criminal investigator who later served another 20 years as a member of Alabama House of Representatives. He left political office in 2022 to enjoy life as a shade-tree musician and philosopher.

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