Allen Peake and the state Capitol drug ring that is no more

A vial of cannabis oil sat on Allen Peake's desk on Thursday night, as his legislative career came to a close. Photo courtesy of Allen Peake

A vial of cannabis oil sat on Allen Peake's desk on Thursday night, as his legislative career came to a close. Photo courtesy of Allen Peake

A major illegal drug distribution ring that has operated out of the state Capitol for a number of years was shut down last Thursday, hours after receiving a final out-of-state delivery from a person or persons unknown.

There were no arrests, thank God.

The cessation of this conspiracy coincided with the end of the 2018 session of the Legislature and retirement of state Rep. Allen Peake.

The good news: Peak, a six-term Republican, says he’ll continue distributing medicinal cannabis oil from his home in Macon, to anyone legally qualified to receive it.

“As long as I can financially do it, and as long as I don’t run into any problem with the law,” Peake told me.

Peake ends his political career after 12 years in the Legislature. The last third is probably what matters to most to you. The middle Georgia lawmaker has probably done more than any single individual in the state to change the way we think about marijuana – at least in terms of its capacities as a medicine to allay seizures and pain.

Peake leaves with his work unfinished. He has sponsored and passed legislation to make possession of small amounts of low-THC cannabis oil legal for those whose physicians have placed them on an official state registry. He has successfully expanded the list of those eligible to try the drug – beginning with children wracked by non-stop seizures.

“I didn’t choose this issue. It chose me. The moment I met little Haleigh Cox on her deathbed at Egleston Hospital in January 2014, that was the trigger,” Peake said.

But marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Justice Department, right up there with heroin.

And Peake has failed to persuade the Republican leadership at the state Capitol to embrace legislation that would permit the cultivation of low-THC marijuana in Georgia – and allow families that need it to escape the possibility of federal prosecution as felons when they cross state lines with cannabis oil in hand.

Which helps explain why Allen Peake embarked on a third career. In private life, he owns a boatload of restaurants. In public life, he has been a lawmaker. And then there’s his semi-secret life as a drug mule.

This column started in a crosswalk outside the state Capitol, when I encountered Peake toting a small bag filled with boxes that in turn contained certain vials which, if their cumulative amount exceeded 20 ounces, an unfriendly prosecutor could use to put him behind bars.

As his legislative career drew to a close, I persuaded Peake to discuss his operation.

Let us begin by saying that forbidden substances have probably been dispensed within the state Capitol before.

“I’m the only one giving it away for free. That’s for sure,” Peake began. “We’re abiding with all of Georgia state laws. I know who the manufacturer is. But the person bringing it to Georgia is – I have no idea. And I don’t want to know, quite frankly.”

Clarification was needed. You are buying these doses – writing checks out of your own pocket? I asked. Yes and no, he said.

First of all, his wife Betsy is an underwriter of the conspiracy, too. And the transaction is somewhat complicated. “We’re making a donation to – we’re involved with a manufacturer and their foundation, providing financial resources to them for research, and to the fund that they have that provides medicine for those who can’t afford it,” Peake explained. “That’s the arrangement.”

The lawmaker estimated that nearly 4,000 Georgians are eligible to possess cannabis oil. His network supplies about 500. For free.

Peake does not speak of cannabis oil or medicinal marijuana. It is always about “the product.”

“The product comes to Georgia somehow,” the Macon lawmaker continued. “One of the families will meet me at the Capitol. It’ll be in a shoebox, it’ll be in a Panera Bread bag, it’ll be in a Kroger sack. I take possession of that.

“We can never have more than 20 ounces. So we have to be very careful to abide by state law,” Peake said. He takes it to Macon, and distributes most of the vials from there.

“We’ve figured out a way around the law,” he said. “But what happens if something happens to me? What happens if I run out of money? What happens if my supplier, the manufacturer, runs into trouble?”

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who has sponsored medical marijuana bills during his terms in office, shows off a T-shirt that families he helped presented to him on Thursday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Peake has always been something of a risk-taker. In 2015, he ran against Speaker David Ralston’s choice for House majority leader, Jon Burns of Newington. He lost.

In retirement, the Macon lawmaker says he’ll throw himself into the Republican primary for governor, behind businessman Clay Tippins, a longshot candidate who sees eye-to-eye with him on the medicinal marijuana issue.

“Supporting a candidate who has a real conviction about this issue,” Peake said, acknowledging that his choice – should Tippins falter — could reduce his own effectiveness should he want to return to the Capitol as a citizen-lobbyist.

While giving kudos to Speaker Ralston for his support on the marijuana issue, Peak has been less charitable toward the state Senate and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the presumptive frontrunner in the GOP race for governor. “The Senate and the Senate leadership have fought us every step of the way,” Peake said, one day before the session ended.

That opinion softened somewhat as the midnight hour approached on Thursday. In early March, the House had passed House Bill 65, a bill authored by Peake that would have vastly increased the number of illnesses and conditions that would qualify for cannabis oil treatment.

The Senate gutted the bill, and backed by the lieutenant governor, inserted language that called for a study commission. On Thursday night, the House countered by adding two conditions to qualify for treatment with cannabis oil: Post-traumatic stress disorder and “intractable pain.” The Senate agreed.

Peake’s drug distribution network is likely to expand as a result. He predicted the state registry of cannabis oil users could double by the end of the year. “I’m grateful that Cagle held to his word to give it a vote,” Peake texted the morning after.

But ultimately, the fate of medicinal marijuana must be determined by Congress, he conceded. Peake lauded the support he has received from U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, but couldn’t say the same about U.S. Sen. David Perdue and other Georgia Republicans in Washington.

“I’ve been very disappointed in our Republican congressional delegation, that they have not been more supporting of rescheduling marijuana. Why haven’t they? What’s holding them back? I just don’t get it,” he said.

The lack of federal approval has kept Georgia’s public research universities from studying cannabis oil, and separating fact from anecdote. Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton expressed interest in doing research, Peake said, but backed off when it became clear that touching the plant could jeopardize other federal funding.

“Going through private industry is the better vehicle,” he said.

So until Congress acts, Peake intends to do what he’s been doing – operating in compliance with state law, and on the edge of federal law. “My wife and I have felt such conviction on this,” he said. “This isn’t a miracle drug. It’s not healing people. But it’s making their quality of life so much better every day.”