There was no smell of marijuana in the air, nor any bare-footed hippies blaring the Grateful Dead at Saturday’s protest to legalize medical marijuana in front of the Vestavia City Hall.
The crowd was, by all accounts, mostly older white people, many of whom say they just want safer access to medicinal marijuana and to not be considered criminals in the eyes of the law.
About a hundred people gathered to show their support of Senate Bill 326, which has recently faced opposition from the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills. Waggoner said–despite the bill having bipartisan support and approval in the Senate committee last week—he will not be placing the bill on the calendar for this year’s legislative session, according to members of the medical marijuana advocacy group, Alabama Safe Access Project.
Organizers of the protest say they wanted to show support for the bill in Waggoner’s district so they would not be ignored. They’ve taken issue with the fact that SB 326 will not be discussed in the Senate because Waggoner didn’t think it was a good piece of legislation.
Waggoner could not be immediately reached for comment.
One of the protestors was Mike Venable, a 62-year-old stage IV renal cancer patient from Russell County, Alabama. He said that the response he has received from state legislators regarding SB 326 has been abysmal.
“Something that is this important deserves to have a discussion take place,” Venable said, describing how medical cannabis got him through some of the toughest days of his life as he was struggling with his cancer treatments and throwing up every day for 18 months.
Because of his treatment, Venable lost 100 pounds and couldn’t eat anything. He had reached the end of his rope before someone offered him a lifeline that he hadn’t even considered. “Someone very dear to me brought me some edibles. Turns out I didn’t even know I needed them, but I really did,” Venable said. He soon gained back some weight and became more active.
Despite taking a stand for legalizing medical cannabis, Venable said he could be a poster child for middle of the road conservatives. “I’ve been a Rotary club president, newspaper publisher, twice chairman of the board of trustees of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, twice chairman of the Columbus Regional Medical Foundation board, member of two chambers of commerce boards, a lay reader in my Episcopal church, father of four sons, husband to a great wife, publisher of magazines and a prolific blogger,” Venable said.
As he looked around at the crowd of people holding up signs saying things such as, “Jobs not Jails,” and “Medical Marijuana, It’s Not Your Parents’ Marijuana,” Venable said he doesn’t think Alabama politicians understand the amount of support there is for medicinal marijuana within the state.
According to Venable, public opinion is shifting towards accepting medical marijuana as a viable option for people who are suffering and tired of becoming addicted to prescription pills. “People want this. It’s going to happen, so why not be on the right side of history for once?” Venable said.
Medical benefits aside, Venable believes that medical marijuana would be an economic shot in the arm for the state which is facing a $700 million General Fund shortfall. “This could potentially be a $50 million tax for the state, so why not take advantage of this and help the people who really need this?” Venable asked. “There is talk about a lottery and raising taxes. Why not at least discuss the benefits that could come from legalizing medical cannabis?”
In states that allow the sale of marijuana, Colorado for instance, the taxes placed on the sale of marijuana have had a substantial impact. In 2014, Colorado brought in $53 million in taxes from the sale of “retail marijuana” as reported by CNBC.
After decades of “brainwashing from the war on drugs,” Venable said that cannabis has been demonized by politicians who, by fighting against its legalization, are able to appeal to their conservative voter base. “It’s hard not to be affected by the false information that was coming out about cannabis,” Venable said. “I used to believe what they were telling everyone too.”
The organizer of Saturday’s demonstration, Ron Crumpton, said this is the seventh year he has gone to the Alabama Legislature about legalizing medical marijuana. He believes that while the bill has bipartisan support, many conservative politicians in the state don’t want to be blamed for the passage of a bill that would allow medical marijuana to be legal in Alabama.
“I think there is still a chance we could do something in the legislature this year,” Crumpton said at Saturday’s demonstration. “I just think that a lot of politicians we have here in Alabama don’t want to get blamed for it. But we’ve got some powerful allies.”
Crumpton said that if politicians in Alabama knew how many people are suffering and need safe access to their medicine, they would rethink their stance. “So many people are forced to take prescription drugs that are easily addictive and do a lot more damage to people that cannabis ever could,” Crumpton said. He himself struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs, he said, by simply doing what the doctors had told him to do.
“People are dying over this. If you look at states that have medical marijuana available, the number of prescription pill deaths are 24.8 percent lower than states that haven’t legalized it,” Crumpton said. According to Crumpton, there are about 600 people that die every year in Alabama from prescription pills.
In spite of the opposition, Crumpton said he is hopeful that eventually a dialogue over medical marijuana will take place. Whether or not that happens this year is still unclear. Crumpton said he is going to meet with Waggoner on Tuesday to discuss the situation and hopefully open up a line of dialogue between state representatives and the public.
“It’s all a political game, really,” Crumpton said. “But it does my heart good to see politicians actually talking about this now, because if they didn’t have plans to do anything about it, they just wouldn’t comment, which is the way it has always been. I’m just glad people are talking about it now.”