Georgia will take the first steps to legalize the limited use of medical marijuana and begin the privatization of the state’s child welfare system even after internal feuding among Republican lawmakers doomed legislative proposals to jump-start those efforts.
Gov. Nathan Deal announced administrative moves Thursday that could eventually allow some families to use a form of cannabis oil to treat debilitating seizures and start a pilot program to begin privatizing the foster care system. It’s the latest in a pattern of administrative changes that carry out politically sensitive legislation that failed to reach his desk.
The strategy has led to criticism from political rivals who blame Deal for the failure of legislation to pass this session. But Deal’s aides hope the moves close potential loopholes they fear Democrats could exploit this election season, and the governor describes them as “fast-tracking” much-needed changes.
“We’ve all been impressed with the fact that there’s a sense of urgency here,” Deal said. “These families need hope. They need to know that all of us are doing everything we can to move a solution forward as quickly as possible.”
Both pieces of legislation enjoyed strong bipartisan support but fell victim to feuding between powerful lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House and Senate in the final hours of the legislative session. Deal said shortly after the session’s end that he was exploring executive action to start the process.
The governor and his aides have been engaged in quiet conversations for weeks with staffers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to find a legal and safe way to allow the limited use of medical marijuana without running afoul of federal regulations that outlaw the use of the drug.
The first option would create clinical trials through a partnership between drugmaker GW Pharmaceuticals and Georgia Regents University to study the use of cannabis oil for children with epileptic disorders. The firm already has a process being vetted by regulators to extract liquefied cannabis oil that doesn’t contain THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high.
The second path calls for a state clinical trial led by Georgia Regents University that uses cannabis oil that’s obtained from a federal farm in Mississippi. Deal’s aides said they obtained assurances the state wouldn’t run afoul of federal rules that outlaw the movement of illegal drugs across state lines.
Both could take months or even years to develop as state bureaucrats and scientists work up protocol, and the governor’s office did not have a cost estimate. The trials would likely involve only children with severe epileptic disorders. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has identified at least 300 children suffering from the ailments in the metro area, officials said.
“Our goal has been to provide pathways to provide opportunities to bring real relief for families and children in a safe and legal manner,” said Deal, who said the state can pursue both efforts in tandem.
The privatization of parts of Georgia’s child welfare system has long been a priority for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other Republican leaders, and it gained Deal’s support in January following two high-profile child deaths and after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered widespread failings by the state’s Division of Family and Children Services.
That legislation also stalled in the final hours of the session amid infighting over who would oversee the first phases of the privatization. Deal appointed a commission with advocates, lawmakers and health experts last week, and on Thursday, he said there would be a limited pilot program in two Georgia regions to explore the privatization. Those regions have yet to be determined.
Deal’s intervention in both pieces of legislation spurred criticism that he should have been a more forceful leader on these issues when they were before the General Assembly.
“These families need help, and it’s sad that the governor chose not to push for a stronger legislative solution during the session,” said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for state Sen. Jason Carter, the Democrats’ candidate for governor. “It’s not leadership to wait around for election years to make token gestures.”
The governor brushed those concerns aside. He said that legislation would have required executive action regardless, and he questioned the need to wait until next year to start the process. Besides, he quipped in a rare mid-press conference jest, he was doing legislators a favor.
“I’m taking it out of their hands by acting now,” Deal said, adding: “I don’t think there’s jealousy over who gets credit. I just don’t think we need to wait until the next legislative session to get this done.”
‘Step in the right direction’
Advocates hope Deal’s moves lay the groundwork for a new legislative push. State Rep. Allen Peake, the Macon Republican who championed the marijuana legislation, said in an interview that he plans to revive a proposal next year that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis oil.
For children suffering from these disorders, though, the wait is far from over. Blaine Cloud, whose 8-year-old daughter Alaina sometimes suffers from dozens of seizures a day, saw the governor’s medical marijuana decision as an encouraging sign.
“It would help us get to know who she really is,” said Cloud, a Smyrna man who was at the announcement. “There’s still a long way to go, but this is a huge step.”
For other families, though, the announcement comes too late. Janae Cox was so frustrated with the measure’s failure in March that she took her 4-year-old daughter Haleigh to Colorado, where the use of cannabis oil is legalized, to get treatments.
They have already had a tremendous impact on her daughter, whose seizures have dropped from hundreds a day to just a handful. She even said “momma” for the first time a few days ago, Cox said.
She thanked state leaders for “not giving up on Georgia’s children.”
Said Cox, “What a huge step in the right direction.”
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