Georgia voters could decide whether medical marijuana could be grown and sold in-state under legislation filed Thursday in the state House that clashes with a competing bill in the Senate.
House Resolution 36 is a long shot, but it offers a glimpse of what advocates say is the best solution for hurdles faced by hundreds of families legally allowed to possess a limited form of medical marijuana in Georgia.
Under a 2015 law, patients and, in the case of children, families registered with the state are allowed to possess up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight specific illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
But it’s up to patients how to get the drug here, a proposition made more fraught because federal law bans interstate transport of any form of the drug. State law does not allow in-state growing of the drug for medical purposes or allow some manufacturers to ship it here, including for legal use of the oil.
Advocates tried last year to persuade lawmakers to ease that restriction, but to no avail. A big sticking point for both policymakers and law enforcement officials in Georgia is the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and addiction, and no accepted medical uses. Many Georgia officials, including Gov. Nathan Deal, have said that federal classification needs to change before the state’s law can be expanded.
“It’s clear law enforcement is still against growing marijuana in the state,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who authored the original law and sponsored HR 36. “There’s some faith-based organizations that are against it. Those are groups that have a lot of influence at the Capitol here. It’s clear we’re going to have a hard time passing a cultivation bill over the next two years. So why not put it in front of the voters when every poll shows there is clear evidence that voters support this?”
A poll done earlier this month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed widespread support for allowing growers to harvest and distribute medical marijuana in-state, although there was not support to allow recreational use of the drug. Peake, too, opposes full-scale legalization but said more people could be helped if the current law is expanded.
If passed, it would put the question on the 2018 ballot of whether to allow growing and distributing the drug in Georgia for medicinal purposes only. With Deal term-limited out of office and the race to replace him on the same ballot, Peake said the timing of the question would allow a new governor to play a part of planning how to implement cultivation if the question passed.
Still, just getting it through the Legislature will be an incredible test. Because it is written in the form of a constitutional amendment, HR 36 needs two-thirds approval in each chamber of the General Assembly.
Peake also filed a related piece of legislation, House Bill 65, that would expand the list of illnesses and conditions eligible for treatment with medical marijuana in Georgia to include Alzheimer’s disease, autism, HIV/AIDS, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and Tourette’s syndrome.
Peake’s filings come the same day the Senate introduced a much less aggressive medical marijuana expansion. Senate Bill 16 would back limited expansion of the law — adding only autism to the list of eligible illnesses — only if there’s a rollback of the allowable THC level in the cannabis oil now allowed here.
THC is the component in the drug that makes people high. The law allows the possession of cannabis oil with up to 5 percent THC. SB 16 would reduce that maximum to 3 percent.
“The higher percentage of THC means the more psychoactive that drug is,” said state Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, the bill’s lead sponsor and a doctor. “I have patients in the emergency room that had nausea and vomiting relating to marijuana, thinking it would do just the opposite. Certainly delusions and hallucinations from THC are common.”
Watson added that patients could use a bit more of the lower-THC oil to reach a concentration they felt comfortable using.
The effort represents an olive branch of sorts from the chamber’s conservative majority, which last year blocked attempts by the House to expand the 2015 law. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle acknowledged last week that it was coming, saying he thought Senate Republicans may be ready to compromise.
Proponents believe the law should be expanded to include more treatable illnesses and conditions. But many have scoffed at the Senate proposal, saying it would hurt more people than help.
“Why would we take away something that is helping people now by reducing the THC limit?” said Shannon Cloud, whose daughter, Alaina, has a severe form of epilepsy that has been treated in the past, in part, by the oil. Cloud and her husband, Blaine, have been at the forefront of an organized push by parents to expand Georgia’s medical marijuana law.
“What about the people that need more than 3 percent THC and have it now?” Cloud said. The Senate, she added, “will be hard-pressed to give any good reason why the 5 percent limit is having any kind of negative impact on anyone in Georgia.”