Allen Peake's departure from the House of Representatives leaves a void in the state Legislature for the top advocate for medical cannabis oil.
The four Republican candidates vying for the House District 141 seat Peake held for about a decade say they support ways to improve the ability of people who suffer from some conditions to have better access to the oil that relieves pain. Although state law allows those people to legally use the oil as treatment, there are laws preventing it from being grown or shipped to Georgia.
The latest debate is over whether the state will let marijuana be grown for the purpose of manufacturing the cannabis liquid used to treat a variety of ailments. A bill proposed by Peake during his final session called for permitting up to two manufacturing licenses to grow the plant.
The next representative for the district that covers north Bibb County and southern Monroe County could play a pivotal role in the fate of Peake's proposal.
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State law allows Georgians who have a doctor's recommendation and a state medical marijuana card to use the drug.
But a lengthy process at the federal level that could take about a decade would have to play out before medical marijuana could get into pharmacies. That includes marijuana being downgraded from a schedule 1 narcotic, so the Food & Drug Administration could permit medical testing.
One District 141 candidate, Shane Mobley, says he's seen through his job in healthcare the benefits cannabis oil has on children suffering from seizures.
Because of the federal legislative hurdles, he says he would ask the leaders in Washington, D.C., to provide some leeway for people to legally acquire medical cannabis.
Mobley stops short of being in favor of growing it in the state at this time but wants to improve the ability to get the oil from other sources.
"If you begin to cultivate and you stop someone with five pounds of marijuana in the car, you’re not going to know did it come from the farm that was licensed by the state or if you’re just doing it in your backyard," Mobley said during a debate last week sponsored by the Macon-Bibb County Republican Party. "There's a huge difference between cannabis oil and those that just smoke marijuana. I think we have to be very careful about that. It’s legal to have some of that stuff in our state, we just have to find a legal way to get it here."
Another candidate, Gary Bechtel, said he would likely back some limited growing of medical marijuana in Georgia to help with specific treatments.
"It's going to take more than a group of legislatures to put pressure on the federal government to do that," said the former Macon-Bibb County Commissioner. "It'll probably take the support of the governor, support of the public ... to bring it up to the level it needs to get the attention of the federal government."
When asked at the debate about medical marijuana, candidate Todd Tolbert said he would push to get cannabis oil into pharmacies any way he could. That statement drew criticism from Mobley, who said Tolbert was making a promise about something a state legislator would have no control over.
But Tolbert said later that his comment was about educating federal legislators on the benefits of medical marijuana, so it could lead to changes in law.
Tolbert, a financial adviser, said while that lengthy process plays out, he is in favor of allowing greenhouses in Georgia where marijuana is grown for medicinal purposes.
"In other states like Nevada they are are growing in greenhouses with video cameras, surveillance connected to the sheriff’s department, so they can watch this growing process to make sure someone isn't using it improperly and make sure it’s not getting into wrong hands," Tolbert said.
Candidate Dale Washburn said the lack of testing means there is no way to know the long-term effect of medical marijuana; however, there is "clear evidence" that it relieves pain.
Washburn said he won't be the same "champion" for the cause as Peake because other issues will be at the forefront. But he said he would support it being grown in the state for medical purposes if questions about how it would be controlled are adequately answered.
"If those questions can be answered ... I would be open to the idea it could be done in Georgia," Washburn said. "However, I'm never in favor of anything that will move us toward any more recreational use of marijuana."
The primary election is May 22, with early voting beginning April 30. The winner of the Republican primary will face no Democratic opposition in the November general election.