Peake retooling medical marijuana bill, ready to face re-election heat

pramati@macon.comFebruary 15, 2014 

021114 pot bs1

State Rep. Allen Peake, who sponsors HB 885 that would approve the use of a specific type of cannabis to treat medical conditions, holds a vial of what the liquid medicine looks like.

BRANT SANDERLIN — ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Until about five weeks ago, state Rep. Allen Peake was like most politicians: He didn’t want to go near any legislation that used the words “legalization” and “marijuana” in the same sentence.

Then he met Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old Forsyth girl who suffers dozens of seizures a day and who could be helped by a compound extracted from cannabis to control those seizures.

“Meeting Haleigh and the Cox family was the turning point for me,” Peake said. “Before that, I wouldn’t have touched this issue with a 10-foot pole.”

Meeting the Cox family so opened his eyes to the issue, Peake said, that it made him question the real roles of lawmakers.

“At the end of the day, this is a human interest story,” said Peake, R-Macon. “This is about how do we, as a legislative body, find solutions for our citizens instead of putting up obstacles and blocking them from solutions? To me, that’s why I’m doing what I do.”

Now, 20 states have some sort of marijuana legislation on the books, and another 13 are considering such measures this year.

Before introducing the legislation, Peake said he needed to educate himself quickly on the topic.

“I had been below the learning curve on this thing, and I had to ramp up really quick because the obstacles that we met were people thinking, ‘Oh Lord, here we’re going down the slippery slope of medical marijuana for a headache or any ailment’ ... or, at worst, opening it up to the legalization of marijuana on a statewide basis for recreational purposes.”

Slowly but surely, Peake has been trying to build a coalition of support for House Bill 885, which he’s in the process of redrafting with an aim to bring it back to committee this week.

Nearly 90 members of the state House have signed onto the measure, and Peake has been working hard to bring in a broad range of support. The Georgia Sheriffs Association has publicly endorsed the measure, as has much of the medical community. Peake has rallied members of the tea party in the Legislature to join the cause.

Peake also is trying to win bipartisan support. State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, is a member of the Health & Human Services Committee that held a hearing on Peake’s bill earlier this month. Randall said she’s lending her support and thinks other members of the state House on both sides of the aisle will follow suit.

“It’s a little hard to tell,” she said. “The hearings were long, so it’s hard to gauge. But toward the middle, I thought there were members who were asking questions that indicated they were supportive. ... Certainly, I hope the legislators will keep their oath of office in mind and do what’s in the best interests of the people while representing them. If this can bring a person some relief, I’m all for it.”

Some taking a wait-and-see stance

Others, however, are reserving judgment.

Even though Peake’s bill hasn’t been approved to be sent to the Senate, state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, said it’s already drawing a lot of attention.

“(Senators) are hearing from their constituents about it, both pro and con,” he said. “My vote will depend on how the bill looks.”

Staton said he’s wary of any medical treatment that hasn’t undergone testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Generally, I’m not a fan of having legislators rule on things that are not in our expertise,” he said. “I’d rather that be decided by the medical community. ... I’m very sympathetic to the families (who want to use the drug for seizures), but I’m not sure anecdotal evidence is the best approach. I don’t think it’s best to make these decisions based on emotions, even though that is often the case.”

Though Peake is trying to build a coalition in favor of the bill, he acknowledges it’s not going to be an easy process. For starters, Peake said he knows he has to provide political cover for his allies so that when they face an election challenge, their opponents don’t use the legislation against them.

That means making the general public understand that he’s not pushing for the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug such as in Colorado or Washington, nor having medical marijuana shops on many street corners, such as in California.

Peake said he only wants the extract from a particular strain of cannabis known as “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s named for Charlotte Figi, a 7-year-old girl who was featured in a CNN special that showed how she went from suffering 300 grand mal seizures a week to just two or three, thanks to the compound.

What’s special about the strain is that it’s low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the element that produces the euphoric effect in marijuana. Instead, it’s high in cannabidiol, or CBD, which produces the medicinal effect but doesn’t contain any psychoactivity.

Working through the logistics

Getting enough support to pass the legislation, however, is only part of the battle. There are logistical challenges that need to be overcome, or else the bill would be meaningless.

Because cannabis can’t be legally grown in this state, Georgia would have to import it from Colorado. Transporting it or shipping it, however, would violate federal drug laws, and Colorado is not allowed to export it.

“There are unbelievable challenges related to this legislation,” Peake said. “We have run into a number of obstacles. ... We’ve gone down every path from A to B on how to get it from other sources, and every direction we go we’ve been blocked.”

Peake said the only transport option at this time is to bring in the cannabis from the University of Mississippi, and the school isn’t currently growing it. He said he’s chatted with the head of the Food and Drug Administration to try to facilitate the process, because cannabis hasn’t been approved by the agency as a method of dealing with seizures.

“It’s moving a massive government bureaucracy that is very resistant to this, at this point, to get there.”

Peake said he is looking at taking advantage of details that Congress passed recently in the farm bill that allows for the transport and sale of hemp, which also is low in THC and high in CBD.

Peake said some families are taking advantage of that option already, but it’s very cost prohibitive -- about $900 a month and not likely covered by insurance.

Peake said he’s exploring other options, but he was hesitant to talk about them Friday with the legislation still pending.

“We’ve got a monumental task ahead of us,” he said. “I believe we’ll get something passed with (House Bill) 885 in committee, but it may be something different than what we currently have in the bill.”

Families affected by their children’s seizures haven’t been waiting for Georgia or other states to pass new laws. Peake said when he recently visited Colorado, he met other families from Georgia who have taken their children there to obtain the treatment without any obstacles.

A current drug trial with 200 participants using Charlotte’s Web has had a 100 percent success rate in reducing seizures, Peake said. He added there are about 2,000 people on the waiting list to take part in the trial.

Haleigh Cox will be moving to Colorado with her mother, Janae, as soon as she gets out of the intensive care unit. The Cox family is concerned that by the time Georgia passes a law, it will be too late for their daughter.

But Haleigh’s father, Brian, can’t transfer out of his job as a firefighter/EMT, so he will stay in Forsyth. Janae Cox said if the bill passes and the drug becomes available, she and her daughter would return to Georgia.

If the bill doesn’t pass, Peake said he’d be very disappointed.

“We’d be basically saying to Georgia families, ‘We’re not going to provide an option for you; you’re going to have to move to Colorado or another state,’” he said. “At the end of the day, this is what government should be doing -- providing options for our citizens. We need to have tight, strict guidelines on it, but this is more important than any issue I’ve dealt with in eight years in the Legislature.”

So important, in fact, that Peake is willing take the political heat in this year’s election for his support of medical marijuana.

“If I get defeated because of it -- and I’ve got an opponent who will probably come after me because of this issue -- then so be it,” he said. “If I fought for children in our state and families to have options that appear to be working and I lose, I’m good with that. And I’ll keep fighting if I become a regular citizen and not (an) elected official.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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