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New bill would set up Ga. vote on medical cannabis

Macon Republican state Rep. Allen Peake gives two medical cannabis bills to staff on the Georgia state House floor on Thursday. The lawmaker wants to set up a public referendum on medical cannabis cultivation in Georgia and to open the state’s medical cannabis registry to more people.
Macon Republican state Rep. Allen Peake gives two medical cannabis bills to staff on the Georgia state House floor on Thursday. The lawmaker wants to set up a public referendum on medical cannabis cultivation in Georgia and to open the state’s medical cannabis registry to more people. The Telegraph

With the signatures of about a dozen other lawmakers, Macon state Rep. Allen Peake filed a proposal Thursday that would set up a statewide vote in 2018 on the cultivation and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes in Georgia.

He’s betting voters would OK an idea that’s popular in other states but that Georgia lawmakers have not approved.

“Its clear we’re going to have a hard time passing a cultivation bill (in the state Legislature) for the next two years. So why not put it in front of the voters, where every poll shows there’s clear evidence that voters support this?” Peake asked, just before handing his legislation to staffers on the state House floor.

The idea has plenty of critics. Law enforcement officials have testified time and again against medical cannabis cultivation.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed Georgia’s medical cannabis possession law in 2015, but he has not supported cultivation. He’s said he thinks the industry could not be kept under control.

Virginia Galloway, regional director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a national conservative group, said she thinks Georgia’s cannabis laws already put it in a dangerous place.

“I want double-blind placebo testing, just like is done on every other drug. And then we can make good policy decisions,” Galloway said.

She also sees medical cannabis as the first step down a road to recreational legalization.

The problem with recreational marijuana, she said, is “all those people standing over there who have lost family members to drug addiction,” pointing down the marble stairs of the state Capitol, toward folks making speeches for an addiction recovery awareness event.

But the relative scarcity of U.S. medical studies on cannabis doesn’t deter people such as Amanda Reiman, manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. That’s a national group that says it aims to reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition. Reiman points to testing from places like Israel and Canada.

“We do recognize that science has shown that the constituents of the plant have a very high medical potential,” Reiman said. “So we support the access to medical cannabis for people who need it, and especially as an alternative to some of the pharmaceutical drugs such as opioids that people are being overprescribed, that we’re seeing a lot more.”

More than half the states have approved medical cannabis cultivation. A total of eight states have approved small amounts of recreational cannabis for adult use.

Georgia is a so-called “CBD-only” state, those that allow possession of compounds rich in cannabidiol, a compound that may help soothe seizures and other medical problems. But there’s no legal way for folks in CBD states to get those compounds.

All of those laws contradict the federal prohibition of cannabis.

Some polls have suggested that Georgians would support medical cannabis cultivation.

“Public support for marijuana policy reform has traditionally been several steps ahead of lawmakers' support,” said Morgan Fox, senior communications manager with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that aims to end marijuana prohibition.

So, if other states are a model, that means going to the public for a vote — rather than asking for legislative approval — could be a more successful strategy for people like Peake who want to liberalize cannabis laws.

What’s not yet set are the rules for any medical cannabis cultivation in Georgia: where would it be grown, who could grow it, where and how would it be sold? Would it mean just liquid products, or would it include things to smoke, eat or vape?

Peake’s own preference is for cultivation of specially bred cannabis in secure greenhouses by a handful of licensees, following the model of states like Minnesota.

Those questions would be answered in a separate bill. But Peake wants a vote on the broad idea of medicinal cultivation first. Then if there were a successful 2018 referendum, a newly elected governor and set of lawmakers would work on the rules in 2019.

A separate bill Peake filed Thursday would open the state’s medical cannabis registry to folks who have six more diagnoses: AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, autism, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee

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