Politics & Government

Medical cannabis wrangle in Legislature nears

ATLANTA -- A medical marijuana draft bill is almost ready, but the controversy is already underway about access to and regulation of any Georgia-grown cannabis oil.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, wants to allow Georgia access to a liquid medicine made from cannabis that doesn’t cause a high for sufferers of pediatric seizures, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, cancer and other diagnoses.

“We cannot move fast enough,” Peake told the final meeting of the House-Senate medical marijuana study committee Wednesday. The committee held several meetings statewide over the past few months to hear from law enforcement and medical experts.

The first draft of Peake’s House Bill 1 will be ready in the next week or so and will list the diagnoses Peake proposes to make eligible for a medical cannabis card. It also will outline how many production licenses would be allowed, what agency would handle regulation, how the oil would be tested, the penalty for breaking a medical marijuana law and other details.

“We realize that this issue has a lot of passion around it, a lot of diverse opinion,” Peake said.

A total of 23 other states have set up comprehensive medical marijuana programs, and if their debates are a guide, Peake can expect plenty of others to say he’s on the wrong path.

State Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, filed bills to legalize medical cannabis and set up a referendum on recreational marijuana days after Peake announced the broad outline of House Bill 1.

“The politicians are probably more afraid of this than the public,” said Thompson.

At a news conference before the hearing, a member of the public from the public joined in to confront Peake about what the bill leaves out.

House Bill 1 will use a list of diagnoses similar to those in use in other states like Minnesota and New York, Peake said. A new Georgia medical board would be in charge of advising the Legislature on any additions or deletions to that list.

“We’re hoping for the whole plant,” said James Bell, director of the Georgia Care Project, which advocates legal access to cannabis. “We’re hoping for the broadest bill possible ... the most patients possible.”

Georgia Care supports adding smokable and edible products to the bill. Peake said he only supports liquid medicine.

Virginia Galloway, of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said she applauds the motives of the committee, but she has concerns about how little is known about medicinal use of cannabis and how THC -- the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects -- reacts with other drugs. She also worries that it eventually would open the door to recreational cannabis.

Gwinnett County father James Smith, whose daughter Marlo has seizures, also wants to see testing, but he’s not worried about the lack of it in the meantime. A cannabis-derived oil has changed his 7-year-old daughter’s life, he said.

It’s the “first thing” that has given her relief from her seizures, said Smith, a physician. Marlo went from having 20 or more seizures a day to now going an entire day without a seizure.

“She’s back in school ... reading,” Smith said.

But where she’s in school is in Colorado. Smith is keeping his job in Gwinnett County, but his wife, Courtney, and all five of their children have temporarily moved to Colorado to access Marlo’s medicine.

Peake started his cannabis mission when he heard from Monroe County mother Janea Cox, who was seeking the medicine for her daughter, Haleigh. Janea has since taken Haleigh to Colorado to get medical cannabis for seizures.

“We need to bring Georgia families back home,” Peake said.

Beyond that, the bill could improve “thousands” of lives in Georgia, he said.

The state legislative session begins in January. If a bill passes, Georgia-grown medical cannabis products could be available by next Christmas.