Medical marijuana bill passes House

mlee@macon.comMarch 3, 2014 

The state House moved Georgia a step closer Monday to legalizing a cannabis-derived medicine that could help patients with severe disorders.

By a vote of 171-4, lawmakers passed a bill allowing Georgia’s medical research universities to cultivate cannabis in order to extract nonhallucinogenic cannabidiol, or CBD, and synthesize epilepsy medicine from it. The bill now moves to the Senate.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, pushed the measure through the House with only hours to spare. Monday was “crossover day,” the day when a bill must pass either the House or the Senate or be thrown away for the year.

A tearful Monroe County mom, Janea Cox, watched from a gallery upstairs during House action that she hopes could lead to relief for her 4-year-old daughter Haleigh’s severe seizure disorder.

“We are so relieved. I don’t know what to say. We are overwhelmed,” said Cox, surrounded by friends and Haleigh in a stroller.

“There are still hurdles,” said Cox, adding that Monday’s vote was a big victory and thanking the lawmakers who passed the bill.

The House hardly held a debate. It was more a nearly hourlong discussion of the benefits that could come from access to this specific liquid compound.

“For two years now, all real-world evidence gives strong evidence that cannabidiol oil ... works for patients with seizure disorders,” said Peake.

But the bill is far from perfect, or even immediately practical.

“This bill does not provide immediate access to cannabidiol oil to Georgia families,” Peake said, though “I wish it did.”

It’s still a substance illegal in federal eyes. In Colorado, several companies manufacture such medicine, but they cannot export to other states. The federal government cultivates some research marijuana, but not the type that’s rich in CBD.

That’s why the bill includes Georgia cultivation.

“The challenge in this bill is how we can access this here for families,” said Peake.

The Georgia Medical Composite Board would set up rules on how universities could grow the plant, but Peake said the language in his bill about that could probably be tightened up.

It’s not clear that any of Georgia’s five medical research universities would want to jeopardize their federal funding by growing an illegal plant and distilling it.

“I say let’s let the (research) institutions make that decision,” said Peake.

And it’s not clear where the money would come from either. State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a former pediatric nurse, criticized the bill for its being unworkable and expensive.

The centrifuge alone to make the medicine, she said, costs about $200,000.

“If we raise these families’ expectations that they are going to get something quickly, ... that really bothers me,” said Cooper.

She urged parents to ask their pediatricians to get them into U.S. trials of a British-approved CBD-rich medicine.

But Peake’s top co-sponsor, GOP state Rep. Ben Watson, a Savannah physician, said the bill could help Georgia become a leader in medical research on cannabidiol and seizures.

“Health is nothing I could ever be political about. ... When it comes to health, we’ve got to do what’s right,” said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon. “I submit to you this is a step in the right direction.”

But Haleigh can’t wait, said Cox. She and Haleigh will move to Colorado later this month, breaking up their family while dad Brian stays at home to work.

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