Georgia to mull medical marijuana, license ban for some immigrants

Georgia lawmakers proposed Monday to legalize a form of medical marijuana and block some immigrants from obtaining a driver’s license.

The two bills were among the highlights on the first day legislators could “pre-file” legislation ahead of next year’s meeting of the General Assembly. Behind the scenes Monday, majority Republican members of the state Senate also re-upped President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, to another two-year leadership term and selected Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, to be their new majority leader.

The medical marijuana legislation, officially known as House Bill 1, fulfills a pledge state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, made to at least 15 families who have left Georgia seeking to use cannabis oil to treat certain seizure disorders in both children and adults — afflictions that can cause hundreds of seizures a day and often lead to death.

The oil is harvested from the marijuana plant but does not create the high that recreational users of marijuana seek. Advocates have pushed the state to grant families immunity from prosecution in Georgia to anyone in possession of the oil and clear a path for patients and their parents to travel outside the state to find a supply, most likely in Colorado because it allows the oil’s use in limited amounts.

The bill would also allow in-state access to the oil to only a limited number of patients and require in-state dispensaries to be licensed and registered.

At least three Georgians suffering from such seizures have died since the state Legislature failed this year to pass similar legislation before it adjourned in March, Peake said Monday. Still, the new bill will likely disappoint some advocates who want a more expansive effort involving the use of marijuana to treat severe diseases such as cancer and glaucoma — something not supported by Gov. Nathan Deal and not likely to be politically viable.

Peake made no apologies, however, since Deal has backed recent state efforts to begin clinical trials using cannabis oil.

“It was a gut-wrenching experience last year, but the energy, passion and determination of the moms and dads and parents of these kids has energized me, and we need to do whatever it takes,” Peake said, referring to the families who have left the state as “medical refugees.”

“We cannot move fast enough” to pass legislation allowing them to return to Georgia and continue treatment, he said.

A state committee created this year to study cannabis’ effects has heard testimony from a consultant who helped shape Colorado’s medical marijuana laws; potential patients; and law enforcement and medical personnel. Lawmakers plan one more committee session under the Gold Dome on Dec. 3.

Peake has dubbed HB 1 as “The Haleigh’s Hope Act,” named after a Georgia child whose parents have been among those advocating for legalization of the oil.

In the state Senate, Columbus Republican Josh McKoon filed Senate Bill 6 in an effort to block access to driver’s licenses for people who have received work permits or whose deportations have been deferred through the federal deferred action program. A similar bill failed earlier this year.

McKoon described his legislation as a pre-emptive strike now that President Barack Obama is reportedly preparing to expand the deferred action program. Obama has pledged to act unilaterally by the end of this year now that immigration overhaul legislation remains stalled in Congress.

It is unclear how many people McKoon’s legislation would affect. But the government has granted deportation deferrals to 18,150 people in Georgia through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program since 2012. That program applies to people who were brought here as young children, who are attending school here and who have not been convicted of felonies.

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Staff writers Nicholas Fouriezos and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.