Johnson: Medical marijuana, Medicaid and more; this year, state lawmakers must do more, do better


This is an opinion column.

It’s time. Long past time.

Long past time for our state lawmakers to crawl out of the muck and mire of ignorance and legalize medical marijuana.

Long past time to stop cowering behind because-Obama-created-it-it-stinks foolishness and expand Medicaid.

Long past time to ensure anyone proven by the courts to be potentially harmful to themselves or someone in their household is not able to possess a gun.

Long past time to stop two-stepping around our state’s abhorrent health disparities—disparities laid bare for all to see by COVID-19—and, at minimum (yes, I’m talking to you, Governor,) convene a statewide committee to tell us how to close the embarrassing gap in infant mortality rates between white babies in our state and Black babies, to elevate access to quality healthcare (and living condition that don’t threaten their health) for our rural and low-income neighbors so they will have the same equitable opportunity to a long, healthy life as other Alabamians. So the next pandemic does not kill some citizens at twice the rate of others purely due to the randomness of birth.

Long past time to stop pursuing prisons as profit over humanity and truly address the myriad inequities in our criminal justice pipeline that cause too many accused of non-violent offenses to fall destitute simply because they cannot afford bail and created conditions so inhumane the federal government has worn out its paddle admonishing us.

Long past time we exorcise our divisive demagoguery and gather a group of compassionate, erudite, thinkers to discern how we can intentionally and emphatically treat oil racial boils that have not healed, how to redress still-living victims of the state-incited, enabled, or condoned violence for which justice was never achieved. People like Sarah Collins Rudolph, our “fifth little girl”, who was severely injured and left blind in one eye by the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

Last year, understandably, the state legislature poo-pooed every bill, every issue, every conversation that didn’t involve a decimal point, that wasn’t a state budget matter. Again, understandably, at the onset of what seems now seems light years ago on the COVID-19 calendar.

That cannot happen again. Alabamians, from domestic violence victims to low-income mothers-to-be unable to afford quality prenatal care, just cannot afford another 365 days of being overlooked, of being ignored. It’s already long past time…

Long past time for our leaders to stop not caring about all of us, regardless of political party, religion, ethnicity, and sexual or gender preference.

Long past time for us to stop being Alabama, to stop being stone-headed about conditions that diminish our neighbors’ economic opportunity, their health, their hope.

Long past time for us to stop saying, “Thank God for Mississippi” since, let’s face truth folks, they’re downright more enlightened than we are on a lot of issues.

Seven years after the state embraced numerous criminal just reforms, Mississippi’s prison population, according to the Department of Corrections, is down 20%—that’s more than pocket change staying in taxpayers’ wallets—and violent crime statewide is 15th lowest in the nation, according to FBI data.

We’re one of only five states not to have at least decriminalized medical marijuana. Mississippi is not among the other four.

Last year, State Sen. Tim Melton (R-Florence) introduced the Compassion Act, a detailed bill that outlines strict criteria for prescribing medical marijuana, after chairing the 18-member Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission. Twelve members of that group voted to recommend medical marijuana, three abstained, three voted against it.

The bill passed the Senate but died with so many others in the coronavirus-shorted session. Melton recently pre-filed Senate Bill 46, ostensibly a dusted-off version of the 2020 bill. It rests with the Judiciary Committee.

Among the commission’s “no” voters: State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. His office told me was he was too busy overseeing the statewide distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations to say whether his stance has changed since 2019 or was impacted by being at the helm of the state’s unsteady battle against a virus that has staggered our state.

A virus that will soon have killed 8,000 Alabamians.

Last November, disabled Iraqi War veteran and Purple Heart recipient Sean Worsley was released from an Alabama prison after serving 10 months of a 60-month sentence for felony possession of medical marijuana legally prescribed to him in his home state of Arizona to treat PTSD and brain trauma. In 2016, he was arrested while driving through Pickens County even though he had a card authorizing him to use medical cannabis.

Worsley and his wife Eboni are living in Birmingham until they are able to return to Arizona. While here, he still is not able to use medical marijuana.

“Because of the difference in his condition before being able to use cannabis and after, we believe it is very beneficial,” Eboni tells me. “Now, he’s back on pharmaceuticals we know are not good for him.”

This should never happen again.

Attorney General Steve Marshall remains steadfast in his hard-headed opposition to medical marijuana. His office reiterated his shaky, outdated arguments he made in a letter to lawmakers more than a year ago. He asserts legalization would contradict federal law that makes marijuana illegal—although 45 states have not let that stand in the way—and draws a dubious, Reefer Madness-like parallel to the respective “origins” of marijuana and opioids.

All lives matter, right? They certainly should.

If so, lawmakers, show us. This year, during this legislative session, show us with bills, conversations, and actions centered on lives as much as line items—on humanity rather than hubris.

It’s long past time.

Unafraid to start uncomfortable conversations, Roy is a voice for what’s right and wrong in Birmingham, Alabama (and beyond). His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as in the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register. Reach him at rjohnson@al.com and follow him at twitter.com/roysj



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