This time, science weighs in on a Capitol debate over medicinal marijuana

A vial of cannabis oil on the desk of a state lawmaker, circa 2018.

A vial of cannabis oil on the desk of a state lawmaker, circa 2018.

For the sixth year in a row, the General Assembly has taken up legislation addressing the legal status of medicinal marijuana in Georgia.

This year is different. Political skepticism, while not disappearing, is clearly on the wane. Perhaps more important, the state’s scientific and medical communities are weighing in as never before.

"We never had that. The medical support is here," said state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, author this year's effort, House Bill 324.

Which means the incremental steps taken so far by the Legislature haven’t turned people away. “What we’re seeing is that the sky hasn’t fallen in,” Gravley said.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, introduced the first medical marijuana bill in 2014, moved by stories of constituents who said that low-THC oil, a non-intoxicating ingredient drawn from marijuana, had helped children who suffered from epilepsy and other seizure-inducing conditions.

“Haleigh’s Hope Act” was signed into law the next year. Over the next three sessions, Peake was able to get the list of patients who could use the oil expanded.

Peake retired from the Legislature last year, his work unfinished.

Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Justice Department. And Peake was unable to persuade the Republican leadership at the state Capitol — Gov. Nathan Deal, in particular — to embrace legislation that would permit the cultivation of low-THC marijuana in Georgia.

That would allow families in need of it to escape the possibility of federal prosecution as felons when they cross state lines with their cannabis oil in hand.

Gravley, who served as Peake’s lieutenant in past battles over medical marijuana, has picked up that particular torch.

“My mission is to get lab-tested oil into the hands of the patients who are registered in the state, without requiring them to incur the expense of traveling to another state,” Gravley said.

State Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Carrollton. AJC file

Credit: David Barnes

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Credit: David Barnes

Given the expense, many who do seek low-THC oil elsewhere can only afford to make the trip once or twice a year. They load up. “What happens if you get caught in Kansas? What happens if you get caught in Oklahoma? They’re having to bring a quantity back that could send them away for a good long while,” the lawmaker said.

Gravley, like Peake before him, opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

HB 324 is a “seed-to-sale” bill that would allow 10 licensees to grow and process low-THC marijuana under high-security conditions. All plants would be grown indoors, under 24/7 video monitoring.

Sixty dispensaries would be allowed across the state. No one without a state-issued card would be allowed to enter the retail outlets. In advertisements, these stores would be prohibited from using the word “marijuana” or words like it — pot, weed, and such. Even signs with green lighting would be banned. And no vaping.

HB 324 passed the House last week, on a veto-proof 123 to 40 vote. An impressed Gov. Brian Kemp hasn’t said a word against the measure. “When it passes with a constitutional majority, it might not matter what I think,” the governor quipped this week.

Leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate say some changes to HB 324 might be demanded, but legislation to allow in-state cultivation of low-THC oil is likely to pass the chamber in coming weeks.

Opposition to medicinal marijuana legislation has been led by social conservative forces in the state Capitol — the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, in particular. The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has also remained an implacable foe.

What’s changed is the attitude of what might be called Georgia’s lab coat crowd. Physicians and other academics are no longer on the sidelines, as they were in 2014. It is possible they were provoked.

Two weeks before House passage of HB 324, opponents brought Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, before a House committee. Berenson is out with a new book on the hazards of marijuana: "Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence."

“I think cannabis is a much more psychiatrically destructive substance than is commonly understood. There is very strong evidence that cannabis can cause psychosis,” Berenson said. “There is also strong evidence that cannabis can produce schizophrenia.”

The author conceded that marijuana may help with nausea caused by chemotherapy, but dismissed other beneficial claims. “The idea that it can be a solution to the opioid crisis goes against generations of evidence that it’s a gateway drug, and is based on very, very weak epidemiological data,” Berenson said.

The trouble is, several people at the University of Georgia have been studying that very thing. One of them is David Bradford, a professor of public administration and policy.

In one paper, Bradford and his fellow researchers — his own daughter among them — found a 14.7 percent reduction in opioid use under Medicare Part D in states in which medical cannabis is offered through dispensaries. Other academics have found that opioid-related deaths fall by 25 percent in states where patients have access to cannabis.

“The evidence of cannabis’ value, clinically, for a number of conditions, is unassailable at this point,” Bradford told me. He acknowledged that there was slight merit in the argument Berenson lays out in his book.

“There are some hints about associations with schizophrenia, and some people with mental illness probably shouldn’t use this option to treat chronic pain, but for a wide range of people, the clinical evidence is now pretty clear,” Bradford said. “This book does misrepresent the science rather substantially.”

Gravley has a letter from Bradford in hand to that effect. Other endorsements come from ranking figures at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, and Emory University. And the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

So sayeth the lab coats. But this is the Georgia General Assembly. Personal testifyin’ and outright conversions — not science — make the best impressions.

Gravley says his strongest letter of support has come from Bob Starrett, chief of police in the city of Austell and a longtime foe of medicinal marijuana legislation.

Joe Jerkins is the mayor of Austell, and has been for 29 years. But he has decided not to seek re-election this year, citing health concerns.

“Our mayor was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s,” Starrett wrote on official city stationery. Tremors and uncontrollable shaking made had made mayoral work difficult for him.

“He recently obtained a low-THC oil registration card. His symptoms improved after he began using the oil,” Starrett wrote. “Access to this medication has allowed him to function more normally, including signing his name to this letter.”

The signature of Mayor Joe Jerkins is indeed at the bottom of the letter, shaky but legible. And Starrett says he has changed his mind about cannabis oil.

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