Cracking the door on medical marijuana in Georgia

Surely you’ve noticed that the meaning of conservatism has undergone a not-so-gradual makeover in the last few years.

The most obvious marker has been gay marriage. Ten years ago, more than three-fourths of 3.2 million Georgia voters approved a constitutional ban on such unions.

Perhaps a majority in this state would still endorse that sentiment. But polls clearly indicate an age-oriented shift, even among Republicans. By the time my generation cleans out its desk and exits the building, same-sex matrimony will be an accepted social fact, even in the South.

Another counterculture taboo has just begun to wobble. Two states – Colorado and Washington — now allow recreational use of marijuana. More importantly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week took a first step toward making New York the 21st state to legalize the use of pot for medicinal purposes.

Even in Georgia, we are experiencing the first stirrings of official curiosity. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, one of the younger members of the state Senate, has proposed a bit of fact-finding on medicinal uses for marijuana. And whether Georgia’s limited 1980s-era law, allowing the use of pot for the treatment of glaucoma and cancer, ought to be expanded.

“There’s not a piece of legislation. What I’m interested in doing is having a hearing so we can bring some medical experts forward to tell us, one way or the other,” McKoon said.

One potential witness: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the Emory University neurosurgeon/journalist whose CNN documentary, “Weed,” aired a few months ago. The 45-minute report is a kind of antidote to “Reefer Madness,” the 1930s cult classic that helped put marijuana on the federal list of banned substances.

Gupta showed how pot – or its refined ingredients – could help control some seizures in children. He now argues that researchers have overemphasized marijuana’s dangers, and ignored its potential benefits.

The CNN piece sparked McKoon’s interest. “I see [Gupta] as a sober-minded person. That got my attention,” the state lawmaker said.

“I’ve had constituents who have children with seizure disorder. I’ve had constituents who are undergoing chemotherapy treatments who say it would be helpful for pain,” McKoon said. “I just want to separate the facts from fiction. You could have a handful of these anecdotal stories without really knowing for sure.”

For the moment, leaders in the state Capitol appear willing to let McKoon proceed with the hearings, which the senator hopes to hold during the 90-day legislative session that begins Monday.

“I want to look at the science. I want to look at the medicine,” House Speaker David Ralston said last week. Senate President pro tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, likewise appears amenable.

“I have never been an advocate for liberalizing marijuana laws, but I am open to our studying potential medical applications,” Shafer said in an emailed statement. “It is unfortunate that some states have clouded the issue by using a medical justification to effectively legalize recreational use.”

Among the Capitol’s authority figures, Gov. Nathan Deal was the most wary. “I think it’s a subject that needs very detailed discussion. I’ve heard mixed reports,” the governor said Friday. “If we amend the law, I don’t want to create a significant problem that expands marijuana use in the state. I don’t think a majority of voters want that.”

McKoon said he can’t see himself ever voting to legalize marijuana for recreational use. But he agrees that, as with gay marriage, it is the increasing influence of libertarian conservatives within the GOP that makes a reassessment of marijuana use possible.

“If I had four town hall meetings in my district, maybe at one of those town hall meetings someone would stand up and ask about legalized marijuana,” he said. “And I think that those folks would self-identify as liberty-movement Republicans.”

But as political issues go, McKoon argues that there’s an important distinction between gay marriage and marijuana. Gay marriage, he contends, has been pushed along primarily through court action.

“With the marijuana issue, you’ve seen legislatures across the country deal with it in different ways,” McKoon said. “And frankly, that’s one of the things I’d want the study committee to do. Now that we’ve got so many states that have done something, let’s see what their experience has done.”

It’s the more “organic” way to proceed, McKoon said. And the pun was absolutely unintended.

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