FILE - This Feb. 17, 2016 file photo shows marijuana plants at a home in Honolulu. A growing majority of Americans say marijuana should be legal, underscoring a national shift as more states embrace cannabis for medical or recreational use.
Photo: AP Photo/Marina Riker, File
Photo: AP Photo/Marina Riker, File

Medical marijuana in Georgia: legal to have, but illegal to get

For Robert Bowles, a retired pharmacist with Lewy body dementia, placing an order at a fast-food restaurant can quickly dissolve into a fit of frustration. He struggles with anxiety and depression.

Often, he loses his train of thought. “I feel like I’m in a closet and don’t see a way out,” says Bowles, who is 71 and lives in Thomaston, Ga. Sometimes, says wife Judy Bowles, he “can just completely shut down.”

A little more than two years ago, Bowles met with his doctor and was approved to use medical marijuana to alleviate his symptoms. He registered with the state and obtained a special card from the Georgia Department of Health.

The problem is, there’s no way for him to legally acquire the medical marijuana in Georgia. It’s against the law to grow medical marijuana. You can’t legally buy it, sell it or bring the drug into Georgia from another state.

That makes Bowles’ official “Low THC Oil Registry Card” – which he keeps locked in a safe at home – essentially useless. So he’s still waiting to use medical marijuana for the first time.

Robert Bowles of Thomaston is using disease awareness advocacy work to keep himself engaged in life. He is with his wife Judy at their home. Bowles, who hopes to be able to start using medical marijuana soon, said people with dementia have “a lot of functional life, and when we provide tools, we will have better outcomes.” Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Other card-carrying Georgians grappling with illnesses risk arrest by tapping into an underground medical marijuana supply network, cultivating marijuana in their backyard or buying it off the street.

MORE: Read more about Bowles and Lewy body dementia

That could change in the coming weeks if legislators make medical marijuana available not only in theory, but practice too.

The Georgia House approved a bill earlier this month that would allow medical marijuana to be sold to registered patients. The legislation, which passed on a 123-40 vote, would permit growing, manufacturing, testing and distribution. Sixty dispensaries would serve the state’s rising number of physician-approved patients — more than 8,400 so far. Marijuana would remain illegal for recreational use.

The measure, House Bill 324, which received widespread support among both Republicans and Democrats, has advanced to the state Senate. The Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill at a public hearing Thursday. Gov. Brian Kemp has said he’s open to “research-based expansion” of medical marijuana.

If approved, Georgia would join 31 states that already allow some form of marijuana cultivation, according to the Joint Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access, a group of lawmakers and stakeholders that recommended licensing marijuana growers, manufacturers and dispensaries.

> UPDATE: Gov. Brian Kemp signs bill for medical marijuana sales

Low THC cannabis contains very low amounts of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Because of that, it does not have the same properties and deliver the high associated with full-potency marijuana.

It’s been legal for patients suffering from severe seizures, deadly cancers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and related diseases such as Lewy body dementia, and other illnesses to use medical marijuana oil since 2015. Last year, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain were added to the list of conditions eligible for treatment by cannabis oil.

The medical marijuana law allows qualified persons to legally possess up to 20 fluid ounces of low THC oil, which is derived from the marijuana plant. As for getting it from a legal source, patients are on their own.

Atlanta police have never arrested anyone with an approved condition and registry card for possessing marijuana oil, or street marijuana. Likely, officers have never even come across this situation. Either way, Atlanta police spokesman Sgt. John Chafee said, officers “have discretion, and we are going to look at the totality of circumstances and take everything into consideration.”

Former State Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican who is credited with efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Georgia, said he knew the 2015 law fell short. But he thought it was a key first step.

Even so, Peake and other supporters didn’t think they would still be in this situation four years later.

Dr. Larry Tune, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist at Emory University Hospital at Wesley Woods, a senior living community, said he would like to be able to write prescriptions for patients with dementia to obtain medical marijuana. He believes it could alleviate suffering and provide an alternative to anti-psychotic drugs with serious, even dangerous, side effects.

But he kept hearing patients complain about having no way to obtain the marijuana.

“We can do that paperwork but it’s pointless,” said Tune, who wrote a letter of support for the new bill to the Georgia House bill sponsor, state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville.

Peake, a conservative politician, didn’t start out as a supporter. In December 2013, a reporter asked Peake his position on medical marijuana and he quipped, “I have no interest in that. It will never move forward.”

Fast forward only a few weeks when Peake visited a girl from his home district who was suffering hundreds of seizures a day. He met Haleigh Cox at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and listened to the mother’s plea for approval for medical marijuana.

“I looked into the little girl’s eyes and asked myself what would I do if that this was my child?” he said. “That changed the direction of my life.”

Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) meets Haleigh Cox CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Nowadays, Peake helps get cannabis oil to approved patients using a network that’s designed to stay within legal bounds. He gives $100,000 a year to a registered grower in another state. The drug is mailed to Georgia (he says he doesn’t know how it gets there, and he doesn’t ask), and volunteers help get it to approved patients free of charge. He estimates he has given cannabis oil to close to 1,000 people.

Former Georgia state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, displays a bottle of cannabis oil in his office in Macon. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Among the volunteers is Smyrna resident Shannon Cloud, whose 13-year-old daughter takes medical marijuana to treat seizures from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that often results in behavioral and developmental delays. Cloud says her daughter’s seizures have become less frequent and severe and that the teenager is able to think more clearly since she began using the oil.

Shannon Cloud, a 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 in February. Cloud was surrounded by other families and lawmakers on Thursday 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: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cloud, who was a member a Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access, spent part of Monday at the state Capitol for meetings about the bill. In between, she gave medical marijuana to another working mother whose daughter has severe seizures. Later in the day, she repeated the drill at another location with someone trying to help a family member with Parkinson’s.

She’s hoping it becomes less complicated soon.

“I had a career, and I had to quit in part because of this. I wanted to spend more time with my kids, but it takes a lot of time to coordinate all of this,” said Cloud. “I am not getting paid. I am just trying to get people the medicine.”

Meanwhile, Bowles, the retiree in Thomaston, recently renewed his card to possess medical marijuana. He’s hopeful this time around, he’ll be able to use it.

“I have no desire to get high,” said Bowles. “I just want to be Robert and be stable.”

— Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

MORE: Smokable medical marijuana now legal in Florida

MORE: Alzheimer’s grows sharply in Georgia — and faster than national average

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