By Mike Cason
The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission on Monday will consider an agreement to try to end months of delays in its efforts to issue licenses to companies to make and sell medical marijuana products.
Brittany Peters, communications director for the AMCC, said the commission’s lawyers reached the agreement this week with lawyers representing companies that have sued the AMCC.
Under the agreement, the AMCC would no longer use third-party evaluator scores in deciding which companies will receive licenses.
“AMCC’s legal team reached an agreement (Monday) that will be presented to the Commission at its meeting on November 27, and is contingent upon their ratification,” Peters said in an email. “The mediation agreement, which was entered in the court record and will be part of an order, provides that the Commission will no longer use the third-party evaluator scores in its licensing decisions.”
The AMCC’s use of the scores, compiled by evaluators recruited by the University of South Alabama, has been one of the most contested issues in the efforts to issue licenses, efforts stalled by lawsuits and mistakes since June.
Will Somerville, attorney for Alabama Always, a company that has spearheaded much of the litigation against the AMCC, said disregarding the scores would be the right step. Alabama Always and other companies have tried to block the use of the scores through lawsuits.
“The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission has tentatively agreed not to use the scores that were the subject of litigation,” Somerville said. “We applaud the AMCC’s decision and look forward to seeing the process move forward so that patients who need medical cannabis can begin receiving it in the near future.”
Alabama Always is one of about 27 companies involved in a consolidated lawsuit. Alabama Always applied for an integrated license, allowing it to cultivate, process, transport, and sell medical cannabis. The third party evaluators ranked Alabama Always 26th among 38 integrated license applicants. The AMCC can award no more than five integrated licenses under the law the Legislature passed in 2021.
Alabama Always said the scoring system is flawed and fails to adequately measure essential qualifications, such as a requirement to be ready to start cultivating marijuana within 60 days of receiving a license. Alabama Always says it has spent $7 million building a cultivation and production facility in Montgomery.
Alabama Always and another applicant for an integrated license, Specialty Medical Products, filed motions in court seeking a temporary restraining order to block the AMCC from using the scores. Specialty Medical Products’ score ranked 33rd out of the 38 integrated license applicants.
You can see the scores on the AMCC website.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Anderson denied the companies’ request to block use of the scores but said he would reserve ruling on further requests. Alabama Always and Specialty Medical Products are appealing Anderson’s decision.
Officials with the AMCC have defended the use of the evaluators’ scores as a tool in helping to decide which companies will receive a license. They have noted that the commissioners have full discretion in their licensing decisions and are not bound by the scores.
The AMCC awarded licenses in June but rescinded those awards after discovering mistakes in how the scores were compiled. In August, they announced the scores were corrected and awarded licenses a second time. But those awards were also rescinded after legal challenges over the process.
The scores appeared to be a main factor in the license awards that were rescinded. Companies that were awarded integrated licenses and licenses as cultivators, processors, dispensaries, secure transporters, and a testing lab generally had the top scores in their categories. A total of 24 companies were awarded licenses out of 90 that applied.
But no licenses were issued and now the AMCC is starting over in evaluating the applicants under new rules and a timeline adopted in October. Applicants are scheduled to make presentations to the AMCC starting next week. The timeline calls for licenses to be awarded in December.
Before the licensing process stalled, AMCC officials said they hoped products would be available late this year or early next year. AMCC Chair Rex Vaughn has said there should be about a 90-day window from the start of cultivation to the availability of products. But cultivation cannot begin until licenses are issued.
When the Legislature passed the medical marijuana bill in 2021, it created the AMCC to oversee seed-to-sale regulation of the industry, which is intended to operate fully intrastate.
The law allows companies to make gummies, tablets, capsules, tinctures, patches, oils, and other forms of medical marijuana products. Patients who receive a medical cannabis card from a doctor will be able to buy the products at licensed dispensaries.
The products can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, weight loss and nausea from cancer, depression, panic disorder, epilepsy, muscle spasms caused by disease or spinal cord injuries, PTSD, and others.
Alabama is one of 38 states that have approved medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Marty Schelper, who is president and founder of the Alabama Cannabis Coalition, said the tentative agreement sounds like progress but that product availability is overdue.
“I’m cautiously optimistic because this legislation passed 30 months ago and we’re still just talking about licensing people to provide medical cannabis to the people of the state of Alabama,” Schelper said.
Schelper, who lobbies the Legislature on cannabis issues, said she would support amending the law to remove the caps on the number of licensees. Schelper said more competition would lower prices and increase availability. She said many patients will not be able to afford the products, which will not be covered by health insurance and will carry a special 9% sales tax in addition to regular state and local sales taxes that can be as much as 11%.
“The market is actually what dictates the price,” Schelper said. “So with more applicants being able to start a business in the state, it would lower the price to the consumer because it would be a competitive market.”
Prospective patients and advocates attend the AMCC meetings and have stressed the urgent need for the medication. Amanda Taylor of Cullman, who said medical cannabis can help her with spasms and pain caused by multiple sclerosis, spoke to reporters after an AMCC meeting in October.
“When you move the patients out of the discussions, and we’re not here, they kind of forget that there’s faces that go along with this,” Taylor said. “There’s beating hearts. And there’s people who are heartbroken and devastated. Not only within what we feel, but within what we have to battle with our bodies because we are lacking what is provided in these plants. It’s not about getting high. It is about healing.”