For Georgia patients, medical marijuana is legal but not for sale

When Cindy Dawson was recovering from excruciating cancer treatment, prescription drugs such as morphine and fentanyl did little to ease severe pain, leaving her curled in bed.

Only cannabis oil helped Dawson eat, sleep and heal.

Like all of Georgia’s nearly 14,000 registered medical marijuana patients, Dawson is allowed to use the oil but there’s no way to legally buy it. Patients rely on an underground network to provide it. Others lack access to the oil.

Those barriers to cannabis oil are now slowly being lifted, almost five years after Georgia authorized the drug for doctor-approved patients.

Many hurdles remain before patients can buy medical marijuana. A newly created government board, which held its first meeting recently, must first create rules for licensing, growing, testing and distributing the drug.

Patients say they need relief, and quickly.

“I’m a 68-year-old grandmother and retired professional who never smoked pot,” said Dawson, a Smyrna resident whose head-neck cancer is in remission but uses cannabis oil to treat residual side effects and pain. “The cannabis oil saved my life. I was originally opposed to it because of my belief that it was an addictive entryway drug that caused kids to go on to other drugs. But now I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

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The government body responsible for launching Georgia’s medical marijuana program, formally known as the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, took a few initial steps: planning to hire a director, scheduling monthly meetings, creating a website. Patients acknowledge that it could take at least a year until they can buy the oil from local dispensaries.

Possession of the medical marijuana, called Low THC Oil, was made legal for registered Georgia patients in 2015. Since then, the number of patients has steadily grown, but they lack access to the medicine that the government has said they're allowed to consume.

Members of the state's medical marijuana oversight commission say they'll work to issue licenses for up to six private companies that can cultivate the plant on 9 acres of indoor growing space. Then dispensaries could open to sell the product to doctor-approved patients suffering from conditions including seizures, terminal cancers and Parkinson's disease.

“The commission is well aware of the difficulties families and patients have faced in obtaining Low THC Oil from legal and reputable sources,” said Dr. Christopher Edwards, the commission’s chairman and principal surgeon for the Atlanta Neurological & Spine Institute. “There is a great need for legal access to Low THC Oil in Georgia and for its in-state production.”

The commission was appointed last month by Gov. Brian Kemp and leaders of the state House and Senate, seven months after Kemp signed the bill into law allowing local production.

Georgia will become the 33rd state with a medical marijuana access law, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based organization working to change marijuana laws.

“We want to expedite production so we can get it delivered to the public as quickly as we can,” said Austell Police Chief Bob Starrett, a member of the oversight commission. “Anyone with a loved one who has a serious problem, they’ll do anything to get that product. This effort will try to stop them from doing something illegal to help their loved ones.”

Under state law, medical marijuana could come to Georgia though one of three methods: It could be grown by state universities, shipped from other states or produced by six private companies.

Medical marijuana advocates say only one of those options is likely to work.

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Other states won’t risk breaking federal and state laws that prohibit exporting medical marijuana, and efforts to grow it by universities have stalled elsewhere, said Chris Lindsey, an attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project.

That likely leaves medical marijuana distribution up to private companies.

When medical marijuana legalization began in Western states such as California and Colorado, governments set regulations but didn’t limit the number of marijuana licenses, Lindsey said.

Midwestern and Eastern states, including Georgia, generally restrict the number of licenses and charge more for them. In Georgia, it will cost $200,000 upfront for a large-scale production license and $100,000 initially for smaller operations. Annual fees will cost $50,000 to $100,000.

“You end up with companies that are exceptionally well established and able to move in and do work right away,” Lindsey said. “You’ll have a highly pressured competition.”

Allen Peake, the former state legislator who led efforts to pass Georgia's medical marijuana law, said there's great demand but little supply of cannabis oil, which can contain no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high. Marijuana purchased on the street can contain 15% or more THC.

“Hurting Georgians are waiting,” said Peake, a Republican from Macon who didn’t seek re-election last year. “Every day I’m hearing from senior citizens and soccer moms that need and use the product, who tell me incredible stories of their improved quality of life.”

Once regulations are created, the biggest challenge for the commission will be deciding which companies should receive production licenses, said state Rep. Micah Gravley, a Republican from Douglasville who sponsored this year's marijuana legislation.

As the medical marijuana program grows, he said lawmakers might consider requirements for dispensaries in rural areas and for homebound patients.

“There are a lot of companies that are going to want to come to the forefront and produce oil in Georgia,” Gravley said. “I hope we have companies that will be able to turn on their lights and their workers will be ready to go.”