Politics & Government

Medical marijuana panel rejects Georgia grow

Rep. Allen Peake
Rep. Allen Peake AP

ATLANTA -- A blue-ribbon study panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal has voted to reject a Macon lawmaker's pitch to allow growing medical marijuana in Georgia.

A majority of the members of the Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis say the governor and the state Legislature should continue to tell Georgians to comply with the federal ban on growing cannabis.

"It is the federal law. We can't change that. We are bound to support the Constitution and federal law," GBI Director Vernon Keenan said just before he and eight other commission members voted against the proposal.

Deal recently said he will not support in-state cultivation of cannabis because he is not convinced that the state can adequately control the plants and products. Deal's executive counsel, Ryan Teague, sits on the commission and voted against growing marijuana for medical use.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, voting with four others, said it's worth crossing the feds in the case of licensing medical cannabis growers.

"At the end of the day, this is a states' rights issue," Peake said. "We, as the leaders of this state, have a responsibility to come up with a reasonable solution for this issue. We should control the destiny of our citizens."

Peake and many other legislators are convinced that seriously ill Georgians should be able to access some liquid medicines made from cannabis. The Macon lawmaker became the Legislature's unlikely evangelist for medical marijuana about two years ago when he met Haleigh Cox, a girl from Monroe County who has a severe seizure disorder. Now 6 years old, Haleigh's symptoms are eased in part by a cannabis-derived medicine.

Earlier this year, Deal signed a law that has allowed some 415 Georgians so far to apply for and receive a state-issued medical cannabis card. With that, they can possess up to 20 fluid ounces of a liquid medicine to treat one of eight specific diseases. The Legislature may pass some additions to that list next year, but no one in Georgia is allowed to grow cannabis or manufacture or sell the liquid.

In the 23 states where medical marijuana is available, anyone growing or using it is still breaking federal law. They are simply counting on the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to continue its policy of closing an eye to state-approved, tightly regulated medical marijuana programs. States also are supposed to make sure their cannabis stays within their own borders.

Shannon Cloud, co-chairwoman of Georgians for Freedom in Health Care, is the mother of a 10-year-old girl who has a severe epilepsy disorder. The mother was near tears after Wednesday's vote.

"This commission was tasked by the governor to take a hard look at this. They did. They heard excellent testimony about how this could be done in Georgia in a safe, regulated manner," Cloud said. "Unfortunately, they didn't have the guts to stick up for their citizens."

A poll her organization commissioned suggests that some 86 percent of Georgians support cultivation of medical cannabis if it's done under tight regulations.

Keenan said he has sympathy for patients and their families, but as a law enforcement officer he cannot recommend that Georgia break federal law.

"The medical community needs to step up. If cannabis can (be) a medical remedy, then the medical community needs to step up. That's not what's been happening," he said.

The most visible proponents of medical cannabis in Georgia have been patients or their families, though a handful of companies have been scouting the possibilities in the state.

Several of the doctors who sit on the commission voted to recommend allowing the drug to be grown in Georgia. Whether doctors or hospitals actually recommend use of the substance is a different matter, because breaking federal law could jeopardize medical licenses or federal grants.

Other opponents see medical cannabis making an opening for recreational use of the drug.

The Georgia Baptist Convention voted last month to oppose growing it in the state, said Mike Griffin, the convention's public affairs representative.

Cultivation of marijuana in Georgia "pushes to a line that would be impossible to maintain," he told the commission.

But Peake said the Legislature will still see a bill that proposes in-state growing.

"I have every intent of introducing legislation similar to what the Minnesota model is," he said.

In Minnesota, two licensed manufacturers grow specially bred cannabis in high-security greenhouses, and patients can only get medicine in liquid or pill form under doctor's orders.

"The fight is not over," Peake said. "We're still going to have an opportunity to make our case to the governor and the Legislature."

The commission's report will be finalized and published in the coming weeks. Its recommendations are not binding.

The legislative session begins in January.

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

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