Politics & Government

Deal signs medical marijuana bill

ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal has signed a landmark law allowing some Georgians to access medical cannabis, and the first taker is a 5-year-old girl from Monroe County.

At an Atlanta ceremony, Janea and Brian Cox, parents of Haleigh Cox, accepted an envelope from the governor containing the state’s first medical cannabis “card.”

It’s actually an interim document on state letterhead with a large, official stamp. It proves the Coxes have state permission to carry the cannabis-derived medicine that halts most of their daughter’s seizures.

A little while later Thursday, in a quieter side hallway, Janea leaned over Haleigh’s stroller and used a medicine dropper to squeeze a few drops of liquid into Haleigh’s mouth. It’s more than 95 percent olive oil, and the rest is extracted from a specially bred cannabis plant.

Janea Cox touched a lock of her daughter’s blonde hair and looked down at the girl.

“Doctors have told us millions of times she shouldn’t be here,” her mother said.

As a toddler, Haleigh developed a severe seizure disorder, suffering as many as 200 attacks a day, damaging her brain.

The Coxes decided they wanted Haleigh to try cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound in cannabis that does not cause a high but does provide relief from seizures in some children.

About a year ago, they were packing Janea and Haleigh’s bags for Colorado to get CBD when a strong seizure attacked the girl and caused her to stop breathing.

Janea and Brian spent weeks at Children’s Hospital at Egleston in Atlanta, cradling the girl tied to life by tubes.

As soon as Haleigh could travel, Janea took her temporarily to Colorado, where the medical marijuana Haleigh needed was legal. It meant being apart from Brian, who stayed in Georgia to work.

The liquid drastically reduced Haleigh’s seizures. Some days she suffers none at all, and she can talk now.

“I heard her say ‘mama’ for the first time in Colorado,” Janea Cox said. “I’ve dreamed of that moment. Yesterday she talked all day long and she smiled at everybody, and when somebody talked to her she would look at them. She’s a whole new kid.”

A total of seven families who had left Georgia to seek medical cannabis for their children received interim cards Thursday.

Deal said a lot of legislation comes from think-tanks or research, but this one came from the needs of families and children.

“I think this ... has touched the hearts of the members of the General Assembly,” Deal said, his voice faltering. “It certainly has touched my heart, and I’m just pleased that we’re going to make a difference.”

Within the next month or two, certain Georgians will be able to apply for the same kind of card the Coxes carry.

First, only people who have one of eight diagnoses will be eligible: cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell disease.

The state Department of Public Health is finalizing the application process, Deal said.

The department will give a form to applicants, and the applicant’s doctor must then certify the patient has one of the qualifying conditions.

Once that’s done and the department is satisfied the patient qualifies, the state will issue the patient a wallet-sized card. The card says the families who have one will not be prosecuted for carrying up to 20 ounces of CBD-rich liquid medical cannabis that has up to 5 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gives marijuana smokers a high.

And that is where state involvement ends.

Patients still have to find a source of something that is illegal to make in Georgia or bring in from another state.

But some Colorado companies are looking at the possibility of shipping a medicine so weak that it’s not considered cannabis or even shipping it from cannabis farms overseas into the states.

“There’s a manufacturer that a lot of the families have been using who has said they will ship the product back to Georgia. And so for a lot of the families, that’s their solution,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, author of the new Georgia law.

“Some of the families, they’re going to have to drive out there, pick it up and bring it back,” he said. “And there’s a risk to that, absolutely, until we have an in-state cultivation model in Georgia. But it’s a minimal risk, quite frankly, and the big fact is to be able to have immunity in Georgia ... that’s the big first step.”

This summer, a state study committee will work on an in-state grow model for the Legislature to consider next year.

On Friday, Janea and Haleigh plan to go back to Colorado and pack up their home there for a permanent return to Monroe County next month.

“The most important thing is getting them back home,” Brian Cox said.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.