Supporters of Georgia medical marijuana legislation gather around the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, following a Senate committee’s passage of a watered-down version of the bill on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. 
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Torpy at Large: No highs yet in Georgia medical marijuana effort

The bill to allow medical marijuana in Georgia went through a state Senate committee shredding machine Wednesday, one that greatly culled the proposed production of pot in the state and the number of places that could sell it.

Medical pot has been growing in wide acceptance in the United States in the past decade — 31 states allow some form of cultivation. The now watered-down initiative to bring it here passed by a margin of 44 to 8 in the state Senate on Friday. The bill now returns to the Republican-dominated state House of Representatives, which had passed the more expansive version of the measure.

State senators considering the question were besieged by sheriffs and religious groups who lobbied hard, telling them that allowing medical weed would ultimately lead to recreational pot and a glassy-eyed, slack-jawed populace.

It was a page out of the old Baptist playbook that says dancing might lead to, well, all kinds of sordid activities.

Ralph Reed, the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which lobbied against the bill, wandered the marble halls Wednesday afternoon.

Before the committee meeting, I ran into Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s’ Association and the face of the opposition.

“The real goal is recreational marijuana in our state,” said Norris. “It always starts with something to help the children, which the sheriffs don’t oppose, but then it expands to these other avenues.

“In our eyes, marijuana is a gateway drug,” he said.

And so, allowing low THC oil for kids with seizures or people with nausea from chemotherapy is also the gateway to widespread pot use statewide.

That, according to state Rep. Micah Gravley, is among the fear tactics being waged upon his bill to water it down or kill it.

Gravley, a conservative Republican from Douglasville, took up the medical marijuana effort after the retirement of Rep. Allen Peake, a conservative who once pushed a religious liberty bill. Gravley had worked as Peake’s understudy on the pot bill.

On March 29, 2018 — the 40th and final day of the 2018 General Assembly — then-Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon (left), shows off a T-shirt presented to him from families who support his sponsorship of medical marijuana legislation. Admiring the T-shirt is Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody. 
Photo: BOB ANDRES / bandres@ajc.com

Peake came to the forefront of this fight because medical marijuana advocates “needed a white, middle-aged Republican male to push a bill,” said Corey Lowe, a former cop whose daughter suffers from seizures. “We got that in Allen Peake.”

Now Gravley has stepped up to be the new white, middle-aged Republican male.

The sheriffs and the religious groups have been a formidable force when dealing with conservative senators. None of them want the local lawman telling people back home that the senator is for dope. And they certainly don’t want the church folk turning on them.

So the senators weakened Gravley’s bill, taking the proposal to allow 10 marijuana facilities statewide and cutting it to two — and allowing two colleges, the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State, to also farm it.

The number of dispensaries has been cut from Gravley’s hoped-for 60 to somewhere between 10 and 20-something (depends on your reading of the bill).

Also, pharmacies could dispense the pot. Committee members say most pharmacies aren’t keen on doing that, but Gravley said three independent pharmacies in his district have expressed their interest.

State Rep. Micah Gravley, left, sponsor of the Georgia medical marijuana bill, and Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, the bill’s biggest opponent.
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

Republican state Sen. Matt Brass was tasked with trying to craft a compromise to satisfy the sheriffs, religious conservatives and families with sick kids.

“It’ll be highly regulated and we’ll start small,” he said of the proposed statewide industry. “It’s a bit smaller than I’d like. I’m a little scared of the supply not keeping up with demand.”

Nonetheless, Rep. Gravley was happy after the vote. Or, more accurately, he was not terribly unhappy.

“I’m happy about the fact that we’re still alive,” he said.

Georgia finds itself in a bizarre situation that only politicians could create.

Four years ago, the Legislature voted to allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for Georgians suffering from various ailments. But the lawmakers then chickened out and fell short in a big way — there is no way to (legally) get medical marijuana in Georgia. You can’t grow it, nor can you bring it in from a state where it is legal.

It’s what you call a conundrum.

Corey Lowe and her daughter, Victoria, who treats her seizures with medical marijuana, have been out in front in the effort to allow it in Georgia. 
Photo: courtesy of Lowe family

It forced a lot of Georgia parents and patients into a weird netherworld of travel and underground pot sales. Lowe, whose daughter, Victoria, suffers from seizures, moved to Colorado with the girl to get cannabis oil. Eventually, they moved back to Georgia because the rest of the family lives here. Now they get the oil sent to them from some unnamed person in some unnamed state. Another former cop is involved, she said.

Also, former legislator Peake is now a cog in that underground world of delivering oil to Georgia patients who qualify. Some 8,400 people statewide have medical marijuana cards and nowhere to (legally) get it.

Micah Gravley’s bill, HR 324, is the answer.

To help satisfy the needs of Georgians who qualify, the senators created a commission that would somehow get medical marijuana to people here who need it. The process of legally getting pot from places such as Colorado or California, where it is legal, to Georgia has not been determined.

Shannon Cloud, the parent of a child who suffers from seizures, holds up a bottle of THC oil during a press conference in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on February 14, 2019. Cloud was surrounded by other families and lawmakers as they proposed a law that would grant the legalization of growing and distributing medical marijuana to registered patients. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Sen. Bill Cowsert, head of the committee trying to figure out how to both water down Gravley’s bill and save it, noted that marijuana is illegal under federal law, which makes it difficult to figure out ways to transport it from a legal state to Georgia.

The new marijuana commission might be the way to make that happen.

“A state is a sovereign entity. You can’t violate criminal laws if you’re a state,” Cowsert said, meaning a state can’t get body-slammed and arrested for smuggling pot. But this is all new territory, so who knows?

Lowe mused that Georgia was simply letting Colorado become its drug dealer.

After the meeting, Gravley was still trying to figure out how this all would work.

“Are state vehicles going to drive it back from Colorado?” he wondered. “Will the feds say, ‘That’s a state of Georgia car, we can’t touch it?’”

“Will we have cargo planes fly into Hartsfield with 5 percent THC oil?”

It’s a rabbit hole, to be sure. But, in a bizarro way, it is progress.

One study shows there was an initial increase in emergency room visits, traffic deaths and youth marijuana use.

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