Jim Galloway/jgalloway@ajc.com

The Jolt: Why a conservative split on medical pot could have MARTA implications

Legislation filed Thursday would allow medical marijuana oil to be sold to patients in Georgia.

The author of House Bill 324 is state Rep. Micah Gravley of Douglasville, vice-chairman of the House Republican caucus. Four other prominent Republicans have also put their name to the measure, along with Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the most influential Democrat in the Capitol. From our AJC colleague Mark Niesse:

The proposal calls for medical marijuana dispensaries to serve the state’s rising number of registered patients — more than 8,400 so far. The drug would be legally grown, manufactured, tested, tracked and distributed for the first time if House Bill 324 passes.

The bill is the next step for Georgia’s medical marijuana program, which since 2015 has permitted patients to possess and use marijuana with less than 5 percent THC, the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

The medicinal pot measure is opposed by the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. But on Thursday, as lawmakers unveiled the bill at a press conference, a surprising statement of support arrived from the Georgia chapter of Americans For Prosperity. In part:

Though not perfect in its current form, Georgia’s Hope Act would remove this senseless government regulation to give patients easier access to the treatment without the threat of arrest. As Georgia currently ranks ninth in overall state imprisonment rates, the legislation would help reduce overcriminalization in the state and help patients get the treatment they need without fear of prosecution.

This is significant. Since the collapse of the Georgia Christian Coalition several years ago, local iterations of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and Americans For Prosperity have emerged as the most consistently influential conservative groups operating in the state Capitol.

They often traveled in lockstep. For instance, Virginia Galloway became regional director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition in 2014. But for seven years before that, she was the voice of Americans For Prosperity in Georgia.

What’s changed? Americans For Prosperity, which is part of the Koch network. The organization has declared a new tack of valuing policy over partisanship. From a Jan. 10 opinion piece by AFP senior adviser James Davis, posted on the CNN website:

For several years, like many others, we accepted that to be effective in politics, partisan engagement was the only real way to achieve policy reform. But not anymore. The reality is partisanship too often gets in the way of achieving what's possible. There's got to be a better way, and our network is committed to find one. We're already helping bridge the divide on a host of issues, including but not limited to criminal justice reform, immigration and combating the opioid epidemic -- and we're working to identify more.

Last month, the North Carolina chapter of the AFP launched a campaign in opposition to a proposed state constitutional amendment to curtail the Democratic governor’s power to appoint judges.

In Georgia, AFP’s shift could have implications beyond HB 324 and medicinal marijuana. On March 19, Gwinnett County voters will decide whether to endorse an extension of heavy MARTA rail into their traditionally anti-transit county. Early voting starts Feb. 25.

The county is shifting politically, but proponents of the measure have long feared the rising up of an opposition anti-tax group – fueled by cash from the Koch network. So far, that hasn’t happened. The above development could help explain why.

***

Inside the chambers of the state House, there was nary a word from Democrats or Republicans in response to the bombshell AJC report about delays in criminal court cases sought by House Speaker David Ralston, an attorney with a north Georgia practice. 

There were no calls for reprimands, no demands for his ouster, no criticism of how he appeared to use a law dating to 1905 to claim that court dates interfere with his lawmaking duties. 

One reason: Ralston has cultivated close ties with legislators across both party lines, even winning Democratic support every two years in the vote for House speaker. 

Another: He wields tremendous power under the Gold Dome, second only to Gov. Brian Kemp, and remembers every “no” vote, every snub and every slight -- and can exact revenge by sidelining bills, tanking pet projects or rerouting committee assignments in a way that the governor cannot.

Even so, the story by the AJC’s Johnny Edwards was the talk of the halls. More than a few lobbyists and politicians came up to reporters to buzz about the fallout - and to wonder why Democrats haven’t seized on the report. 

***

AJC/Special

The General Assembly now has something called the Second Language Caucus. For the moment, all members are Democrats: Brenda Lopez was elected in 2016, Bee Nguyen in 2017, Angelika Kausche of Johns Creek; Pedro Marin of Duluth; Donna McLeod of Lawrenceville; Sam Park of Lawrenceville; and state Sens. Zahra Karinshak of Duluth; and Shiekh Rahman of Lawrenceville.

And all but one, it seems, have attachments to Gwinnett County.

***

No surprise here, but both of Georgia’s U.S. senators voted to confirm Bill Barr as attorney general Thursday afternoon. Barr was cleared on a largely party-line vote of 54-45 after some Democrats voiced concern about how he would manage the Russia probe. 

*** 

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, wants his Democratic committee chairman to compel the testimony of former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein before Congress.

Collins said Thursday that comments McCabe made during a recent TV interview about discussions among Justice Department officials, over the possible removal of President Donald Trump through the 25th Amendment, warranted a hearing. 

“We now know certain government officials plotted to investigate and undermine the newly elected president of the United States,” Collins wrote in a letter to Chairman Jerry Nadler, adding that he authorize subpoenas should McCabe and Rosenstein decline. “The American people have a right to know whether the unelected FBI and DOJ leadership substituted their judgment for the judgment of the American people regarding newly elected President Donald Trump.”

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