ATLANTA -- By a unanimous voice vote, a medical marijuana bill makes its first legislative step, a much smaller one than its Macon sponsor first expected.
The House Judiciary Committee approved legalizing Georgia possession of up to 20 fluid ounces -- the size of a plastic bottle from a soda machine -- of a certain type of liquid medical marijuana bought in another state.
But that possession comes with a lot more conditions than envisioned by bill sponsor state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, just a few months ago.
“When you want to pass a bill, you aim high,” said Peake after the Monday afternoon vote. “I had the full expectation that we were going to have an in-state grow model this year.”
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Late last year, he predicted speedy movement of a medical cannabis law to cover every step from cultivation to manufacture to distribution.
But this year, he met resistance.
“It was clear that that was not going to get support in the executive branch and probably not in the leadership of the Senate,” said Peake, after the Monday panel vote.
If any medical cannabis is to be accessible in Georgia this year, it will have to come from another state.
Peake wrote in-state growing of the liquid medical marijuana into early drafts of House Bill 1 so patients could get medical cannabis close to home. Because cannabis and all its derivatives are still banned by the federal government, moving it across state lines is a felony.
Outside the hearing room after the vote, 26-year-old Katie Crosby of Macon shook hands with friends and contacts from the public and her thousands-strong “Hope for Silent Sufferers” Facebook group.
She suffers from chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, but she goes to the Capitol when she can to lobby for access to medical cannabis at home like the kind she tried on a recent trip to Colorado. Cannabis oil rich in cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive compound, gave her relief, she said.
Two weeks ago, she strode into a public park on a sunny day to give a talk.
On Monday, she sat in a wheelchair.
“I’m deteriorating,” she said. All the symptoms that were relieved by the cannabidiol oil are coming back, she said, including fever, pain and sensitivity to light.
Moving to Colorado is not an option for her, she said. She cannot afford the move, and although she has a degree in social work, she cannot work. She needs a caregiver.
“And my sister’s having a baby at the end of April,” Crosby said. “I don’t want to miss those moments. ... Also, I want to fight for this bill.”
House Bill 1 will not apply to as many diagnoses as Peake sought in earlier drafts.
As approved by the committee, the bill applies to people who have Lou Gehrig’s disease, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, fibromyalgia or Parkinson’s disease. An earlier draft included more diagnoses, including Alzheimer’s and sickle cell anemia.
State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, one of Gov. Nathan Deal’s official floor leaders, cautioned the committee not to be too “overzealous” in the bill.
“Rather, let’s get something done that we can have confidence knowing we can get through all those processes” -- the House, Senate and governor’s desk.
Lists of cannabis-eligible diagnoses vary from state to state. Peake meant his original list to lasso most diagnoses that appear in at least one other state.
That list shrank after heat from law enforcement at a hearing two weeks ago. At that time, representatives of Georgia’s sheriffs, police and prosecutors said they feared the law was open to abuse.
Since that testimony, Peake added the 20-fluid-ounce cap and outlined punishment for possessing the liquid illegally. Depending on the amount, it would be a felony worth up to 20 years in prison or a $1 million fine.
As passed by the committee, any potential patient must sign up with the Georgia Department of Public Health for the “Low-THC Oil Patient Registry.”
That comes with a card that exempts them from Georgia prosecution for possession of liquid medical cannabis legally obtained in another state with a maximum of 5 percent THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
The bill now moves to the House Rules Committee, which will decide if the bill gets a full floor vote or if any amendments are on the way. If the House approves the bill, then Peake must find a Senate sponsor and start over across the building.
Though both the House and Senate are under GOP control, the two do not tightly coordinate on policy.
It’s not clear what, if anything, will become law this year.
“This bill will inevitably end up in conference (committee) and could end up very different,” said state Rep. Rick Golick, R-Smyrna, the committee chairman.
The bill also creates a summer study committee meant to research and write up recommendations for a Georgia-grown medical cannabis framework.
Peake remains optimistic.
“We may have seeds in the ground by summer or fall of 2016,” Peake said.