As legalized marijuana spreads across the United States, most observers remain skeptical that recreational marijuana will be legal anytime soon in Alabama.
“We’re the Bible Belt,” said Gary Hetzel, a retired warden at Donaldson and Holman prisons and now executive director of the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility. “We’re too conservative.”
Marijuana activists are hopeful, but realistic.
“It will be legal here when the people force their elected officials to stop enforcing an obviously failed and disastrous policy,” said Loretta Nall, executive director of Alabamians for Compassionate Care and founder of the U.S. Marijuana Party, which began as the Alabama Marijuana Party. “Having been an activist here and knowing how difficult it is to motivate enough people to make a difference, I’ll say that I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
Alabama’s reputation for conservatism and lagging social trends make it an unlikely candidate. Yet everyone agrees the idea becomes less farfetched each time another state votes to legalize it and as popular opinion continues to shift in favor of legalization.
“No, I do not think there will be any legalization of marijuana in Alabama,” said Ralph Hendrix, former program manager for UAB Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities. But he sees the conversation shifting. “Marijuana is prolific now; it’s just a failed strategy and policy,” he said. “The tax revenue could be going toward schools. The medical uses are becoming front and center. There is a lot of evidence marijuana helps veterans with PTSD. ”
The University of Alabama at Birmingham has been a focal point for research on medicinal uses of marijuana. As medical research delves into the potential benefits of marijuana for treatment of pain and diseases such as cancer, that could shift the discussion even more.
“I think there’s going to be an increasing sympathy,” said Dr. Bisakha Sen, a professor of healthcare organization and policy at UAB. “It would first get legalized for medicinal purposes. I would expect that in the next five years. Full legalization could come a few years later.”
Former prison warden Gary Hetzel, now executive director of the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility, thinks it’s unlikely that Alabama will legalize marijuana: “We’re the Bible Belt.” (Greg Garrison/AL.com)
Hendrix noted that research at UAB has been the impetus for drafting legislation about cannabis treatments as early as 1982. That came to fruition most recently with Alabama’s two cannabinoid oil laws known as Leni’s Law and Carly’s Law.
In 2016, Alabama passed Leni’s Law, allowing patients who suffer seizure disorders or other debilitating medical conditions to use a product that comes from the marijuana plant. The law decriminalized cannabidiol, derived from cannabis, for those with certain medical conditions in Alabama.