Senate panel approves latest version of medical cannabis proposal

mlee@macon.comMarch 12, 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.


ATLANTA -- A state Senate panel unanimously approved possession in Georgia of a single type of medicine derived from cannabis, with the state’s prosecutors signed onto a plan that violates federal law.

The measure offers “protection from prosecution for possession of cannabidiol oil” used for seizure treatment, said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who made the edit on his own House Bill 885 in front of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

The oil is made from a strain of marijuana that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that delivers the plant’s high. The plant is rich in cannabidiol, which is non-hallucinogenic and which relieves severe seizures in some afflicted children.

Though doing so would be illegal under federal law, the Legislature could decide to treat cannabidiol oil like any other controlled substance that is banned without a prescription, said Danny Porter, with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, who helped draft the edits.

“The prosecutors of this state are not interested in depriving children or adults in this state from adequate medical treatment as long as it doesn’t open the door to legalization of marijuana” on purpose or inadvertently, Porter said.

If a person were to “obtain a prescription for cannabis (cannabidiol) oil ... in a state where a doctor is authorized to write that prescription, ... if they were able to get back to Georgia, then either the patient or the doctor who administers it would be immune from prosecution” under the bill, Porter told the committee.

But there’s a new wrinkle between Peake and passage. Senators, including Health and Human Services Committee Chair Renee Unterman, R-Buford, are having problems getting the House to pass the so-called “autism bill.” That’s Senate Bill 397 by state Sen. Tim Golden, R-Valdosta, which would require insurance companies to cover autism treatment in patients up to age 6.

So Unterman amended the autism bill onto the end of Peake’s bill just before the unanimous committee vote.

That means the House and Senate versions of the bill are more different than they would have been otherwise. Both sides are already talking about settling the differences in a conference committee in the coming days, before the session ends March 20.

Federal law bans possession of marijuana or any derivative nationwide. But it’s state, county and city law enforcement and district attorneys such as Porter who actually make the arrests and build criminal cases.

But Porter predicted no recreational demand for the liquid “because as far as we can understand it, it’s not a substance that makes you high.”

Legal gray area

Places that decriminalize any kind of marijuana product are still in a gray area when it comes to federal law. The U.S. Attorney General’s Office has said it will not prioritize prosecution of marijuana and marijuana products allowed under tight, effective state laws. But presidents and attorneys general come and go.

Any parents who want to take advantage of Peake’s plan also depend on Washington, D.C., to continue to close one eye to their transporting an illegal substance across state lines.

“That parent is going to have to make that decision for themselves,” said Peake, both to take the legal risk and to trust a non-FDA-approved liquid.

But for many parents, the FDA doesn’t mean much anyway.

Jason Smith, a Gwinnett County ER doctor whose daughter has severe seizures, said that for the 20 percent of epileptic children who have cases that are not responsive to regular medicine, doctors are already trying medicines out of line with FDA recommendations.

“My daughter needs this medicine,” said Janea Cox of Monroe County, whose 4-year-old daughter, Haleigh, has up to 200 seizures daily and who inspired Peake’s bill.

Haleigh has “failed a dozen medicines, some FDA-approved, some not,” said Cox, and has also undergone surgeries and diets that delivered dangerous side effects rather than relief.

Despite the committee vote, Georgia have moved too slowly for the Coxes. Janea and Haleigh will head to Colorado on March 13.

Dad Brian will stay at home to work, because the family doesn’t want to lose his firefighter pension.

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