Each day about lunchtime at Warner Robins High School, 17-year-old CJ Harris must leave campus to take his medicine.
His dad, Curtis Harris, drives to school, gets CJ out of class, and the two ride around the block or sometimes head home. CJ draws some cannabis oil in a syringe, squirts it under his tongue and waits for it to dissolve.
He’s been taking the medicine every six hours for the past four months for epilepsy.
“I haven’t had a seizure since,” the high school football player said.
The oil, derived from the cannabis plant, wasn’t a problem for administrators at First Presbyterian Day School, a private school in Macon. But the rules are different at public schools, the Harrises learned during a recent transfer process to Houston County.
“I told them about it, you know, ‘He takes (the) oil for his seizures ... , and that’s when they went into a panic, like, ‘We don’t know what to do about this,’” Curtis Harris said of Houston County school officials. “They called the head state nurse, and the head state nurse told him that he can’t even have it on campus.”
CJ is the first medical marijuana patient at a Houston County school since state Rep. Allen Peake of Macon introduced a law in 2015 that established a state medical marijuana registry that is limited to people with specific diseases.
Families registered with the state are allowed to possess up to 20 ounces of low THC cannabis oil to treat severe forms of specific illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. The program was just expanded to include AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and autism, among other diagnoses.
To date, more than 1,700 patients in Georgia and 354 doctors have registered with the state to use and administer medical marijuana.
Beth McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Houston County school district, said the school can’t administer — or even store — CJ’s medicine.
“By law, the only person whose name is on the registration card issued by the Department of Public Health for cannabis oil may store the oil,” she said in an emailed statement to The Telegraph. “In addition, per the Safe and Drug Free Schools federal law, the oil may not be brought onto school grounds.”
The situation happens infrequently. Stephanie Hartley, a spokeswoman for the Bibb County school system, said she was unaware of a similar request by a Bibb County student’s family. The Bibb County school board would have to revise its policies to deal with the matter.
The same goes for the Georgia School Boards Association.
“We haven’t seen it as of yet,” said Justin Pauly, the association’s director of communications. “It is definitely going to pop up. It puts the school systems in a very difficult position” because it could jeopardize any federal funds they receive.
CJ had his first grand mal seizure in the seventh grade.
He lost consciousness, fell to the ground and hurt his head as he shook violently for about 30 seconds. It happened a few times.
He didn’t have another seizure until the 10th grade, when “out of the blue they just popped up again,” Curtis Harris said. They happened monthly, sometimes twice a month, “but he was always having them.”
CJ’s family took him to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, for sleep studies. They even took him to see a naturopathic physician, but none of that helped stop the seizures.
CJ was taking Keppra, an anticonvulsion medicine that comes in large, white pills. A missed dose could result in more seizures. What’s more, CJ said it made him irritable.
“It wasn’t working, and I was still having seizures,” he said. “So, some teachers and some of the other people around the FPD community realized it wasn’t working. They found this oil for me, and they said it would be a better resource than the pills.
Harris said Peake’s wife works at the private school. Peake learned of CJ’s epilepsy and reached out to the family to encourage them to apply for the state low THC oil registry.
CJ’s mom wasn’t immediately on board with the prospect.
“I was like, ‘Heck, no!’ at first, … like, ‘OK, will he get addicted?’” Toya Harris recalled. “I was against it at first until I took the time to research and watch videos about how it affects people and how it works on people.”
The Harrises were moved by the story of Haleigh Cox, a little girl from Monroe County whose plight inspired Peake’s first medical marijuana bill. Cox used to have thousands of seizures, but after taking the oil she regained some motor skills and started speaking more.
Peake is helping supply hundreds of people such as CJ and Haleigh with low THC oil, which remains federally illegal. CJ is on his second bottle in four months and the Harrises said Peake is giving it to them for free.
“I don’t understand how Mr. Peake gets it. I just send him an email stating that he’s running low and he’ll actually get in touch with the right people,” Curtis Harris said.
If CJ makes it another two months without a seizure, he will be eligible to get his driver’s license.
For now, Curtis Harris will have to continue picking up his son from school for his noon medication.
Peake said the Harrises aren’t alone.
“Stories like this are happening and will be happening all over our state as the medical cannabis law continues to expand,” he said, adding that protocols have been developed for how to administer other prescription drugs.
He added, “I’m looking for education administration officials to show some courage and do what’s in the best interest of students.”
Oby Brown contributed.