Politics & Government

Cannabis ban bends under corporate, congressional and medicinal pressure

ATLANTA -- When Georgia lawmakers passed a medical cannabis law earlier this year, it was meant for a fairly narrow population of the state’s most severely ill patients.

Indeed, anyone swallowing a Georgia-legal drop of liquid cannabis extract has to be desperate enough to take a risk on a treatment that’s mainly untested and -- as far as the federal government is concerned -- illegal.

But the government’s front-line troops in the war on drugs are not pushing back hard on sick people. And at least one Colorado company is doubling down on its bet that shipping Georgians certain liquid cannabis extracts will not be a problem.

That means the barriers between medical cannabis and Georgia patients may be more vapor than substance.

Plants in the cannabis genus go by many names, but Colorado law mirrors a distinction common in speech: “Hemp” is not psychoactive and is used for food, fiber, paper and other industrial uses. “Marijuana” is everything else.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration says that except for a few exceptions for no-buzz hemp products such as soap, whatever comes from the cannabis plant is illegal. That includes a long list of compounds from THC, which causes a high, to the increasingly famous cannabidiol, or CBD.

Cannabidiol is at the center of medical research going on now in Georgia and other states. People take it to treat the symptoms of a range of disorders, including cancer and epilepsy.

Earlier this year, Georgia legalized possession of CBD-rich, low-THC liquids for people who have a doctor’s orders and a medical marijuana card. The state set up the registry at a cost of about $400,000. Georgians who follow the cannabis rules will not face arrest by the state’s deputies and police officers.

The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office has not encountered any illegal CBD liquids, said Lt. Sean DeFoe, a department spokesman.

And federal drug agents have bigger “fish to fry,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.

Yes, it is illegal, and if the DEA comes across CBD liquid, they will seize it, Payne said.

“Does that mean we’re on wiretaps, trying to go after someone who’s transporting CBD from one state to another? No,” he said.

“We have a prescription drug epidemic. We got a heroin epidemic right now. We have large-scale criminal manufacturers. ... We got a synthetic drug problem right now. So, yeah, I would say CBD is not at the top of our priority list right now,” said Payne, who knows of no case of the agency proactively investigating therapeutic CBD liquid.

Ultimately, the DEA takes its enforcement orders from policymakers. Among those policymakers, there are moves to ease up on CBD.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is co-sponsoring the Therapeutic Hemp Medical Access Act of 2015. It would remove the federal cannabis prohibition from low-THC, CBD-rich strains of the plant.

“This legislation will ensure that families of children suffering from seizures have access to treatments that can provide them with a better quality of life,” Isakson said when the bill was filed in May. It has yet to have a committee hearing.

Congress already has directed the DEA’s parent agency not to spend money enforcing cannabis laws against medical cannabis programs that operate under state laws. The Department of Justice said two years ago that it will not prioritize enforcement actions where there are well-enforced, state-legal cannabis grows.

Yet Georgia patients are still reluctant to talk about where they get medical cannabis. Some speak of sweaty-palm drives from Colorado. But they can also simply click through out-of-state websites that will now ship to Georgia.

Of those, the most prominent is a firm called CW Botanicals, one of the companies and nonprofits founded or run by the Colorado-based Stanley family.

They ship to 48 states, including Georgia, because their products are hemp dietary supplements, blessed by Colorado’s hemp law and a clause in the federal Farm Bill of 2014. At least, that’s according to the customer service representative who was staffing the company’s online chat room recently.

Several e-mails to a company spokesperson requesting an interview about the legal risk, if any, for recipients went unanswered.

But Realm of Caring, a closely related Stanley nonprofit, confirms as much on its website, and it also offers its members a discount on CW products.

The site also says it encourages, but does not require, customers to follow their states’ cannabis laws and sign up for any state registry.

For some people, the potential of CBD therapies outweigh the risk of an encounter with law enforcement.

“Absolutely, it’s worth the risk, which I believe is a minimal risk,” said Allen Peake, a Macon restaurant owner who has taken a special interest in getting CBD oil into Georgians’ hands.

“I’ve taken that risk, and I’d do it again,” he said, declining to elaborate.

His position is a little more powerful than most. He’s not a medical cannabis patient, but he is the Republican state lawmaker who crafted Georgia’s medical marijuana law. He also started a fund to bankroll some of the expenses of Georgia families who travel to Colorado for medical cannabis.

Next year, he aims to legalize the in-state growth of the specially bred cannabis from which CBD liquids are made.