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  • garriganchey

2020 Alabama Cannabis Advocacy in Review

As we crawl out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are already setting up for an active advocacy year in 2021. However, it's also a good time to look back and see how we did in 2020 and what progress was made.

Last year was the first year our association was active. Yet, our impact in lobbying and public awareness was considerable.

Turning "No"s into "Well, Maybe"

As the bill to legalize medical cannabis came before state legislators, we took note of the "no" votes. And through conversations and their public statements, we saw that many were not knowledgeable of the cannabis industry. That's understandable. It's a new industry. But this gave us an opportunity to educate policy-makers.

We arranged to have some Alabama legislators visit businesses in Alabama that grow or process cannabis. They were able to see it instead of just read about or hear about it. They found out for themselves from the industry sources.

One example of this is when we arranged for Senator Tom Butler to visit A&M Scientific, a processing and testing company. This was a good match, since Senator Butler is also a pharmacist.

While visiting the facilities, he asked about the packaging because of the common concern of companies possibly marketing their cannabis products to children, which was answered very well by the A&M owners. This showed me Senator Butler was putting serious thought into how cannabis for medical use might could be sold in a safe and responsible way in Alabama. His visit was after he voted against the Medical Cannabis bill in May last year. So we have hope the visit may have changed his mind. We did the same type of business visits for at least 20 Alabama legislators last year. And we found it so effective, we're planning to do more this year.

Learning About Cannabis in the Black Belt

In February of last year, I was invited to speak to the Alabama Democratic Black Caucus. But in addition to informing them, I got a lesson too.

We all know there are still inequities in law enforcement and other civic institutions. While Alabama cities did not get as much attention from Black Lives Matter protests last year, as happened for some other cities, we still live with remnants of decades-old racism in the state, particularly in the Black Belt (so named because of the rich black soil, but is now home to many economically distressed and mostly rural counties with mostly minority populations). These Black Caucus members informed me of their concern that any legislation that allows comprehensive (referred to as "vertical") licensing for cannabis not indirectly exclude minority-owned farmers. Of course, any efforts to monopolize the industry through some limitation in the state law's wording is contrary to our policy. Everyone has to be given a chance to have the license if they can show they will operate their business responsibly. We support a free market in the cannabis industry. That's the American way.

I saw that these legislators know of the opportunity cannabis has to improve the Black Belt economically. It's not only about individual health and the overall state economy. Opening Alabama up to more cannabis business will bring community development, turning around the disadvantages some have had in the past.

Again, this gives us another tool we have in our messaging toolbox.

We also discerned that some minorities may refrain from even the now-legal business of growing hemp or other cannabis plants because they are afraid of harassment from law enforcement. If a law has a licensing arrangement, then that could protect any grower or processor from unjust arrests. In fact, it would do the same for all possible business owners who may fear such suspicions.

Informing Alabamians about Cannabis Issues

A sad incident turned into an opportunity to show why the laws need to be changed in Alabama. When we learned of Sean Worsley's unjust arrest and imprisonment in August of 2016 and his re-imprisonment in 2020, we contacted local news media to do a story. And they did. Then, it took off to the point of getting national news media attention. Ultimately, he was paroled.

Mr. Worsley was a resident of Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal. He is a disabled veteran and has conditions that provided for him to have a prescription for using cannabis. Yet, he was stopped in Gordo, Alabama (population less than 2,000), for playing music too loud and then was arrested for possession, particularly for having more than what was claimed he would have for personal use, which is a felony.

The news media coverage brought attention to why Alabama's laws need to be changed, not only for Alabama residents, who would benefit from medical use of cannabis, but also for those out of state who may be traveling through. Just as Carla Crowder, at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice said, " . . .until Alabama fixes its overly punitive marijuana laws, struggling people will continue to be harmed and precious state resources will be wasted on enforcement of laws that have no connection to public safety."

By advocating for Mr. Worsley, we also developed relationships with other advocacy groups that represent veterans' interests and are for legal justice and civil rights. This will help us build coalitions for advocacy projects in the future.

I also appeared on radio programs in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Montgomery. Expect more media coverage as the proposed legislation is revisited this year.

Overall, this is a great start to our association. But there is so much more to do. Join our social media accounts (bottom of this page) to stay informed on what we do this year. Oh, and have you joined yet? Surely it's time. Check out our membership levels and see which one is right for you.