Politics & Government

Georgia medical cannabis bill wilting

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, stands with supporters at the state Capitol on Feb. 16.
State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, stands with supporters at the state Capitol on Feb. 16. mlee@macon.com

ATLANTA -- A small group of parents stood outside the door of the state Senate chamber Monday morning, buttonholing legislators and staff, asking about a bill that would open Georgia's medical cannabis registry to more people, including some of their children.

The message they got is that no committee hearing will be scheduled on it by the time the legislative session ends March 24.

That means unless the bill is attached to some more successful bill at the last minute, it is dead for this year.

"I've committed to the families that I'll work with them next year," said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. As it stands now, the bill would need approval from her committee for a Senate vote, but she said Monday she will not schedule one.

She said the families she heard from are split on the bill.

"Some of the families wanted to wait until next year until you could get a broader scope. ... I know there was a lot of conflict," Unterman said.

When the bill originally was filed, it was in fact much broader. It would have allowed a handful of licensees to cultivate medical cannabis in Georgia. The idea of growing the marijuana in-state was cut out in the House last month, however.

While cutting out cultivation did disappoint some advocates, the author of the bill, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said he doesn't know of any family that wants the more modest bill to fail.

"I will feed anybody for a month at my restaurants if they can find one family that has been advocating opposed" to the trimmed bill, said Peake, an owner of several restaurants including Cheddar's, Captain D's and Fazoli's.

Peake himself is disappointed in the no-grow bill, but he still supports it.

Unterman also said her committee has had about 70 bills this year, many controversial, and that there's no time for medical cannabis.

Margaret Terlaje, one of the parents in the Senate hall Monday, said she needs the bill to pass so she can legally possess the liquid that her son Antonio, 7, takes to control his autism symptoms.

"He's been beating himself since he was 18 months old," said Terlaje, showing two pictures of her son. One shows his chest, arms and legs covered with red marks. The second, taken after she started giving him a liquid that's made from specially-bred cannabis, shows his skin clear and healthy. She named more than a half-dozen pharmaceuticals that she said failed him.

Georgia's medical cannabis registry would be newly opened up to patients who have autism and a handful of other diagnoses if House Bill 722 became law. Terlaje is supporting it so she can get a medical cannabis card for her son, which would entitle the family to possess his liquid medical cannabis without fear of Georgia arrest or trouble from the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. She said she does not dare bring her son's liquid to the family home on Fort Benning. She medicates him off-base.

Peake said he is still working on other legislative strategies for the bill.

"We're not giving up. We're working on lots of different options," he said.

Another parent, Vince Sievert of LaGrange, is a veteran of working the legislative halls on behalf of his 21-year-old daughter Miranda Sievert, who uses liquid medical cannabis to control her intractable seizures. A few hours after Unterman publicly confirmed she would schedule no medical cannabis hearing, he leaned against a Capitol window sill, arms folded.

"We're hoping for some compassion from Sen. Unterman. She helped us last year by getting House Bill 1 (the first medical cannabis registry law) through. She should show the same compassion this year. I don't expect it, but I hope that she will," Vince Sievert said.

Peake filed the cultivation bill because there is no place in Georgia to legally buy the liquid medical cannabis that Georgians on the registry can possess. Patients and families must go to another state and bring the liquid home or have the liquid shipped, both of which break federal drug smuggling laws.

Critics fear that growing the drug in Georgia could actually turn into cover for an illegal industry or that it would start a slippery slope toward allowing recreational marijuana in Georgia. Gov. Nathan Deal has said he does not think medical cannabis demand is high enough in Georgia to support an industry, and he is not convinced it could be kept under control.

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