CORRECTION -- An earlier version of this story misstated the Georgia House Bill number for a medical marijuana proposal earlier this year. Also, the story misstated the state’s child welfare agency. A corrected version is below.
ATLANTA -- Across the country, 22 states now allow some form of medical marijuana use. That reality, plus lawmaker sentiment in Georgia and Washington, could help break the state’s de facto prohibition in 2015.
The first step, though small, has already happened. Last week, Georgia Regents University announced a deal with British company GW Pharmaceuticals to plan clinical trials of a liquid cannabis extract called “cannabidiol,” or CBD, for intractable pediatric seizures. The United Kingdom has already approved that treatment.
The university’s move came with the blessing and partnership of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who first announced the idea in April.
Weeks earlier, the Legislature nearly opened a wider route to CBD oil for children who suffer dozens of seizures daily. The popularity of House Bill 885 may have killed it, in fact. It would have decriminalized possession of CBD oil on behalf of children who have a valid recommendation for it from a physician. Supporters of an unrelated and less-popular bill on autism insurance coverage attached their language to HB 885, a tactic that backfired and killed both measures.
When the next legislative session begins in January, HB 885’s author, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, plans to reintroduce the same idea, and he hopes for fast-track passage.
“So that those families who have had to move out to Colorado ... at least have the option to come back immediately and not have (the Division of Family and Children Services) come to the door,” Peake said.
He knows the families out there personally. After the failure of his legislation, he and friends set up a fund that is paying Colorado living and travel expenses for eligible families to take their seizure-stricken children for treatment. Subsequent donors have included some police chiefs and some of Peake’s legislative colleagues.
But after the CBD bill, “then I hope we will have a broader, more comprehensive approach to establishing a medical cannabis infrastructure,” he said. “The big question will be, ‘Are we ready to start growing in Georgia?’”
That where-to-grow question has stymied medical marijuana research in Georgia for decades. A dusty state law allows medical cannabis trials for glaucoma and cancer, but the only source it allows is federal research marijuana. Right now, there’s only one farm nationwide growing the stuff.
Peake will push for an in-state grow. One of his models is a new Minnesota law that will authorize two companies with a total of eight distribution centers to grow cannabis and manufacture pills, liquid and oil medications for treatment of ailments, including epilepsy, glaucoma, cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Questions in Minnesota
“I’m happy that it passed,” said Minneapolis state Sen. D. Scott Dibble of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s version of Democrats and the author of the original Senate measure, which became law last week after much editing.
But people are still wondering how well the law will work getting medical cannabis to the estimated 5,000 eligible Minnesotans, he said.
“Is there enough money to be made to justify an investment that’s going to be tens of millions of dollars” by any company that takes up one of the cannabis contracts, Dibble asked. “And is it going to drive the costs high? This isn’t going to be reimbursable” by insurance, he said.
Indeed, he would have made the eligibility list longer. “A lot are left out and that is regrettable,” he said.
The version of the bill that passed comes with enough oversight and patient tracking that it’s going to need state money. It creates a Minnesota state Office of Medical Cannabis that will oversee the private medical cannabis firms and monitor patient treatment. The state is advertising for a director at a salary between $73,811 and $105,862.
Peake reckons his vision of a tightly regulated, medically supervised medical cannabis program for Georgia comes with a price tag -- maybe up to a couple of million dollars.
“But I think it’s an expenditure that’s worth it for our people,” he said.
The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association prefaces any talk about medical cannabis with the proviso that it will never support the legalization of marijuana or any derivatives for recreational or casual purposes.
But, “the sheriffs support the use of medical cannabis in a closely controlled clinical environment where approved academic medical centers closely screen and accept patients” who would take the compound only by liquid, pill, vaporization or ingestion, according to an association position statement.
The state’s police chiefs are going to spend the summer in studies. The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police has put together a committee “to look at facets of marijuana legalization in general ... (and) specifically look at the oil” for pediatric seizures, said Executive Director Frank Rotondo. They plan to publish a white paper before the start of the legislative session.
Its parent organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has fought relaxation of marijuana laws, Rotondo said. The group has argued in Washington that trafficking, youth marijuana use and other ills might increase.
But at least a faction in Washington is getting more comfortable with the medical type.
Last week, the U.S. House voted to defund federal Drug Enforcement Agency raids on state-licensed medical marijuana growers and users, tacking the measure onto a routine spending bill, House Resolution 4660, which has yet to win full passage.
Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia co-sponsored the language and argued for it on two grounds.
There are valid medical reasons to use cannabis extracts or products, which can be less dangerous than narcotics, the physician-turned-legislator said on the House floor.
And besides that, “we need to reserve the states’ powers under the Constitution,” he said.