Campus guns, medical marijuana win key votes to move ahead in Georgia

A measure to allow guns onto any campus in Georgia's public college and university system passed the state Senate, one of several crucial votes taken Tuesday as lawmakers head into the final day of the legislative session.

A bill to ban state support for Georgia colleges that declare themselves "sanctuaries" for students living in the country illegally and one that would give state officials the power to take over perennially struggling public schools both received final passage. House Bill 37 and House Bill 338 now head to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

An expansion of the state's medical marijuana law also won overwhelming House approval, with Senate officials saying they expect to agree to Senate Bill 16 on Thursday, lawmakers' last day of work this year.

The most watched vote, however, came early in the afternoon as the Senate took up a more than hourlong debate on the campus gun bill.

"Frequently, invisible lines distinguish our college and university campuses from other properties — but we should never allow these overlapping boundaries to deny us our constitutional rights," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said immediately after the 32-22 vote, which sent the bill back to the House for review. With time running short in the session, many at the Capitol expect the House to disagree early Thursday and send the bill into final negotiations involving a conference committee.

“This thoughtful compromise protects the fundamental right to lawfully carry, which belongs to all Georgians,” Cagle said.

5 years in the making

House Bill 280 would allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry firearms on public college and university campuses, with exceptions that include dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and buildings used for athletic events. On-campus child care centers would also be excluded, as would areas on some college campuses where high school students attend class.

This is the fifth year in a row the Legislature has considered such a measure. Last year's legislation got as far as Deal's desk before he vetoed it, citing concerns that it was both too broad and that campuses have historically been gun-free to promote learning. Deal has also called for excluding campus discipline hearings and administrative and faculty offices from the proposal, but lawmakers so far have not added those exclusions.

Officials say lawmakers are negotiating with Deal’s office over a potential compromise before the session is gaveled to a close Thursday.

Supporters say allowing guns on campus would give students a chance to protect themselves without interfering with their peers, since the bill would require their weapons to be concealed. It is an added measure, they say, to counter criminals who may also bring a gun onto campus.

Georgia law requires anyone seeking a state permit to carry a concealed gun to be at least 21 years old. They must be fingerprinted and pass a background check.

Still, critics say allowing guns on campus would create an unsafe environment for students and faculty. They've also cited national studies, including one released in the fall by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health that concluded the presence of guns would likely lead to more shootings, killings and suicides on campus, especially among students.

ExploreGeorgia is one of 17 states that do not allow guns on its public college campuses.

Among concerns brought up Tuesday by opponents included a question of where students would keep their guns stored while on campus, and whether allowing guns onto campus property would create an additional safety issue since thousands of school-age children visit college campuses every year to attend events such as summer camps or academic programs.

"Maybe Georgians just don't think 21-year-old kids should be running into the Salamander Ramble with a firearm," said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. The ramble, she added, is "just one of the camps and activities at the University of Georgia in which more than 150,000 small children each year come onto campus. And that's just at UGA. When they send their little ones off to the UGA bug camp, parents probably think the most dangerous thing their kid will encounter is the proboscis of the Eastern mosquito, not the barrel of a gun"

Six new conditions for treatment

The medical marijuana compromise is expected to get a much smoother ride to Deal’s desk.

House and Senate lawmakers brokered the compromise earlier this month, after the House backed off much broader expansion plans and the Senate no longer pursued a proposal that would have reduced the maximum allowable percentage of THC in the oil (it’s currently 5 percent in Georgia). THC is the component in marijuana that makes its users high.

SB 16 now would add six conditions eligible for treatment with a limited form of cannabis oil allowed in Georgia: Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, autism, epidermolysis bullosa, peripheral neuropathy and Tourette's syndrome.

Additionally, patients in hospice care would also be able to possess the oil. Other changes include a 45-day reciprocity window for people who come to Georgia from another state, as long as they have a medical marijuana registration card issued by another state, a condition that’s allowed to be treated in Georgia and a form of the oil that is permitted here.

Under Georgia’s 2015 law, patients and, in the case of children, families who register with the state are allowed to possess up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight specific illnesses, including cancer, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

"This bill doesn't go as far as many of us like, it does add six more conditions," said state Rep. Allen Peake, the Macon Republican who wrote Georgia's original medical marijuana law and has backed allowing in-state cultivation of the drug for medical purposes. "And it does allow many more Georgians to benefit from this law."

The House, later Tuesday again approved a bill that would change the way Georgia’s public universities investigate and punish allegations of sexual assault on campus.

The revised SB 71 passed the House 102-56, largely along party lines. It must also be considered again by the Senate.

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and David Wickert contributed to this article.

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