Georgia medical marijuana expansion stalls amid ‘frustrating’ delay

Nearly four months after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law allowing companies to grow and sell medical marijuana in Georgia for the first time, he and other top politicians still haven’t appointed members of the commission that will hash out the rules for dispensing the drug.

Aides to Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and state House Speaker David Ralston did not specify why they haven't tapped members yet for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. Until they do, the expansion of the medical marijuana program is effectively stalled.

The legislation, House Bill 324, gave the seven-member commission vast oversight over the state's medical marijuana operation, including picking which businesses can grow the plant and developing the licensing requirements that retailers must meet to sell it.

It's a cornerstone of legislation that creates a new but limited marijuana industry in Georgia. The legislation was celebrated as a milestone for patients who were previously allowed to use the drug — but had to violate state and federal laws to purchase it.

“I was hoping the commission would be appointed right away, as it will take considerable time to establish the process for granting the licenses,” said Allen Peake, a former Republican lawmaker and the author of the state’s first medical marijuana laws.

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“In the meantime, hurting Georgians are still having to overcome incredible obstacles to try to get medicine that we as the state have said they can possess,” he said. “And every day I hear from these citizens — grandmothers, soccer moms, veterans and parents — who need help.”

State Rep. Micah Gravley, the sponsor of this year's law, said he, too, is hearing concerns from patients and advocates about the timeline. The Douglasville Republican said he's heard candidates are being interviewed and hopes the board will be filled by the end of September.

“There’s no lull right now. We’re moving along,” Gravley said. “I understand why people are concerned — I’m anxious as well. But the industry is going to be successful or not based on who’s appointed to this commission. It needs to be well-vetted.”

Feb. 20 2017 - Atlanta - Rep. Allen Peake holds a bottle of cannibis oil as he presents a medical marijuana update bill. It’s the first step toward passage in the House. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

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‘It’s frustrating’

The law gives the commission power to license up to six private companies to grow medical marijuana, to develop a list of laboratories to test the drug, to handle state funds and grants linked to the initiative, and to hire an executive director and other staff for the program.

The commission also oversees potential marijuana production by the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University, two schools permitted by the law to seek manufacturing licenses. And it has power to obtain the drug from other states or corporations.

(It’s still illegal in Georgia to smoke or vape marijuana. Only marijuana oil with less than 5% THC, the compound that gives pot its high, is allowed for registered patients.)

Georgia has let patients suffering from severe seizures and other illnesses legally use medical marijuana oil since 2015. But because the state didn't allow in-state cultivation, the more than 10,000 people on the program's registry risked defying federal law by transporting the oil across state lines.

Gov. Nathan Deal opposed legislation to permit manufacturers to grow cannabis oil in Georgia, saying it should be up to Congress to change the law that makes it illegal. Kemp said he was open to in-state cultivation during the campaign.

Under the law, Kemp would appoint three members to the commission, while Duncan and Ralston each get two picks. Aides to Duncan and Ralston each declined to comment when asked about the appointments and whether there was a timetable to select them.

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said the governor is “carefully reviewing several recommendations to ensure that the right people are selected for this critically important commission.”

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One potential cause for the lag time is that the commission is essentially a startup, unlike other boards and agencies with built-in procedures and existing members. State officials say they’ve been inundated with applications — more than 50 candidates have surfaced for the spots.

The law also sets strict requirements for appointments, including a rule that commission members must not have any ownership stake or other financial interest in a cannabis oil firm during their term — and five years after it ends.

Still, the delay is a setback for patients and their families who celebrated the law's passage with hopes it would provide much-needed treatment for severe seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.

Dale Jackson, one of the leading advocates for cannabis expansion, said he’s been in “constant communications” with state leaders since the law was signed in April and he trusts “they know the importance of this commission.”

“I believe they are taking their time because of that,” said Jackson, whose son relies on the cannabis oil to relieve his symptoms of autism. “It is my understanding that they hope to make a great deal of progress in the process here shortly.”

Peake said he hoped state leaders make swift appointments, since even after the commission is set, it could take months for regulations to be crafted, licenses to be approved, seeds to be planted and harvested, and the first batch of medical marijuana oil to be legally sold in Georgia.

“It’s frustrating that there’s not a greater sense of urgency to help these folks,” he said.

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