Georgia’s medical marijuana law just turned one year old

The phones at the Georgia Department of Public Health no longer ring off the hook with people calling to find doctors or asking questions about how the state’s medical marijuana registry works.

Yet Georgia’s quiet revolution in the year since it legalized a limited form of medical marijuana has shown little sign of slowing. Even so, obstacles and risks remain in the push for expansion.

According to one of the lead researchers at Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia, state-based clinical trials show promise in using a specific form of medical marijuana called cannabidiol to treat severe epileptic seizures.

The state’s official registry of approved patients, which by late summer last year included about 130 people, now counts about 830 people and climbing.

And yet some parents now gather in virtual chat rooms and their own homes, sharing notes about how to make their own cannabis oil to help treat children dealing with often intractable conditions. Making it is illegal. The state — despite having legalized possession of a limited form of the oil — continues to ban the growing and manufacturing of any form of medical marijuana within state boundaries.

"That's what a legal possession-only law creates — until parents have some way to have safe and consistent access, they are forced to break the law to meet the standards of what Georgia has allowed," said Blaine Cloud, who with his wife, Shannon, have been at the forefront of an organized push by parents to expand Georgia's law.

Their daughter, Alaina, has a severe form of epilepsy that causes uncontrollable seizures and developmental delays, and they themselves have struggled with finding the right “strain” of oil to help her. They recently decided to take her off cannabis oil as they prepare to try another treatment.

Twenty-six states now allow the use of medical marijuana with in-state distribution, including versions of the drug grown or made there. Sixteen others, including Georgia, allow its use on more restrictive terms, with no in-state access — meaning those seeking it must look elsewhere to obtain it.

In the case of Georgia, patients and, in the case of children, families who register with the state are allowed to possess up to 20 ounces of a limited form of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight specific illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. It’s up to the patients, however, to figure out how to get it here, a proposition made more fraught because federal law bans interstate transport of any form of the drug.

"There are still logistical and financial hardships even for the folks that are properly registered with the state," said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who authored Georgia's medical marijuana law but has yet to persuade enough lawmakers to approve in-state cultivation and to expand the number of conditions allowed for treatment. Efforts on both those fronts failed earlier this year in the Georgia Legislature, and they also continue to be opposed by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Instead, both Peake and parents said a kind of underground network among like-minded families has established itself in the past year and seems likely to continue unless both federal and state laws change.

“A low-THC product (the high-inducing chemical associated with recreational marijuana use) can be shipped, but the other strains that have also seemed to be of particular benefit can’t be shipped by federal law even though they are allowed under Georgia’s law,” Peake said. “So we’ve had to figure out another way to get those products to Georgia, and we’ve done that. We’ve figured out how to get the product here. The financial hardship, we’ve done by providing product to families that need it” at little to no cost.

Peake, however, is unaware of anyone being arrested for bringing the drug into the state.

Marijuana continues to be classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and addiction, and no accepted medical uses.

Change may be coming, though.

The DEA is expected to announce as soon as August whether marijuana has potential therapeutic value and should be bumped down to at least Schedule II.

The reclassification would open more doors for medical research and treatment, although it would still leave marijuana in a category with cocaine and methamphetamine, drugs considered to have a strong potential for abuse.

For many in Georgia’s law enforcement community, the onus is on the federal government to change federal law — something they view as essential before Georgia expands its own efforts.

“We continue to hold the position that the federal government should seriously consider the scheduling of marijuana,” said Chuck Spahos, the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

“No prosecutor in this state wants to stand in the way of people that need any medicine from getting it,” Spahos said. “Medical marijuana should be treated just like all other drugs used for medical purposes, and the federal government can ensure that by rescheduling the substance.”

Those in Georgia studying the effect of the drug’s growing therapeutic use both here and nationally said all states have had to grapple with certain aspects, including the fact that while doctors may recommend the use of medical marijuana, they still cannot legally prescribe it.

University of Georgia professor W. David Bradford, who studies the effects of public administration and policy, earlier this month co-authored a national study that found a correlation between medical marijuana and lowered prescription drug use within Medicare’s prescription drug benefit program in states where it was legal to use the drug for medicinal purposes.

The savings were estimated to be about $165.2 million in 2013, well before Georgia’s passed its own law, but Bradford said even he was surprised the results were so strong.

And the Medical College of Georgia’s Dr. Yong Park said Tuesday that researchers were encouraged by early results in Georgia that involved a specific drug, the cannabis-derived oil Epidiolex. Other results are pending, but of 30 patients who took the drug for at least four months, 63 percent saw a reduction in severe seizures. And six patients — about 20 percent — appeared to be seizure-free.

“That’s very encouraging,” said Park, who with his team has submitted those findings for review and possible presentation in December at the American Epilepsy Society’s annual meeting. The Georgia clinical trials are expected to continue until the drug in the trial, made by GW Pharmaceuticals, wins approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Park said.

What diseases or disorders are covered by Georgia’s medical marijuana law?

  • Cancer, when the disease has reached end stage or the treatment produces related wasting illness, recalcitrant nausea and vomiting
  • Seizure disorders related to diagnosis of epilepsy or trauma-related head injuries
  • Severe or end-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease)
  • Severe or end-stage multiple sclerosis
  • Severe or end-stage Parkinson's disease
  • Severe or end-stage sickle cell disease
  • Crohn's disease
  • Mitochondrial disease

To get more information, see the state Department of Public Health's registry Web page:

By the numbers

Georgia’s medical marijuana registry in August compared to now:

  • Number of doctors registered: 162 —> 258
  • Number of patients registered: 138 —> 829