Georgia families urge lawmakers to expand medical marijuana program

Georgia families urged lawmakers on Monday to expand the state’s medical marijuana program as critics questioned the rush toward a “substantial change” in state law.

The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee held the first hearing on House Bill 722, which would create up to six licensed facilities where the drug would be grown, harvested and processed for patients suffering from 17 disorders. Monday’s hearing was limited to those who support the plan, with an opportunity for opponents to speak Wednesday.

Testimony from families who have loved ones suffering from a range of diseases was often emotional. Brian Underwood of Cobb County has a young son who suffers from a rare genetic disease that causes his skin to frequently tear or blister, causing near-constant pain. Underwood said he and his wife often have to “torture” him when cleaning his wounds or treating his blisters with a hypodermic needle.

“There is not one aspect of Reid’s life that is not affected,” Underwood told the legislators. “Damage can be created by anything: bumping furniture, acting like a normal baby or getting a hug from mom or dad.”

Underwood said other parents of children with the same disease have seen great benefit from a type of medical marijuana that HB 722 could legalize in Georgia.

“People opposed to cannabis oil in general or medical cannabis expansion need to look at Reid,” Underwood said. “His pain is incomprehensible to you and me. It hurts you as a parent to hear the screams of your child.”

Before the testimony, however, committee members questioned the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. The questioning outlined the future debate of the measure, which already has a powerful supporter in Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and a powerful opponent in Gov. Nathan Deal.

Peake told the committee that his bill would not result in abuse of the system by people looking to get high.

“Whether we pass this bill or not, people are going to continue to smoke marijuana to get high,” he said. “I’m not sure someone who wants to get high off smoking a joint is going to go to their doctor, ask them to certify them as having a qualifying condition, go through the registration process, make a trip to a dispensary, have a consultation with a pharmacist and pay $250 a month.”

But state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, said he is concerned Peake’s bill will lead to a “recreational marijuana reality.”

“I am committed to creating words on a page that will take care of people who have medical needs,” Setzler said. “But not if we leave barn door-sized holes in the statute creating a recreational marijuana reality.”

Lawmakers last year voted to allow patients suffering from eight diseases and disorders to legally possess a limited amount of a particular cannabis oil. But the bill did not create a method for them to get the medicine in Georgia. Peake said his current bill is a natural next step.

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