House approves medical marijuana bill, sets up showdown with Senate

The state House on Wednesday moved quickly and decisively to approve legislation that would make it legal to possess limited quantities of medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription.

The 158-2 vote on House Bill 1, however, now sets up a possible showdown with the Senate, where leaders have questioned the bill’s inclusion of more than half a dozen disorders that would qualify for the drug.

The list of qualified disorders again includes sickle cell disease, which had been removed, along with a number of others, earlier this week. Sickle cell was restored after members of the Legislative Black Caucus questioned why a disease that overwhelmingly affects African-Americans was deleted.

Sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, HB 1 would decriminalize the possession of up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil that contains no more than 5 percent of the chemical that produces the euphoric high associated with marijuana. Patients would have to have a state registration card, which can only be granted by a physician for patients with one of nine specific disorders.

For Peake, Wednesday’s vote was the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of work since similar legislation failed on the final day of the 2014 legislative session.

“Today, we have passed a bill that will begin to reunite families who have been torn apart in their pursuit of medical treatment,” Peake said. “When I began this journey, I made a promise to bring those families home and to give Georgians a chance to obtain medical cannabis oil in our state without fear of prosecution.”

Families express relief over passage

At least 20 families have moved from Georgia to Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, for easy access to medical cannabis. Many more remain in Georgia, hopeful Peake’s bill will grant relief. Among those are Blaine Cloud and his wife, Shannon. Their daughter suffers from seizures.

Blaine Cloud said Wednesday’s vote “is a very, very great show of support. We just need the Senate to do the same thing.”

Whether that happens remains to be seen. Senate leaders, including Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, the powerful chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, have signaled they favor limiting the bill only to children with seizures.

Unterman declined to comment Wednesday, but earlier this session she said she’s confident some version of the bill will pass this year. Unterman has written her own medical marijuana bill, which she has yet to file, that only covers children with epilepsy.

Peake said he hopes the full Senate sees things differently.

“The fear I have is the Senate will strip every condition but children with seizure disorders,” Peake told reporters. “I will tell you I think that will be a great disservice to our state.”

Peake acknowledged, however, that even if his bill becomes law, obstacles remain for patients who want the drug. It remains illegal to grow and manufacture medical marijuana in Georgia, although Peake said a Colorado company has committed to shipping cannabis oil to Georgia patients should the bill pass.

The bill also would create a state commission to recommend a framework for creating a Georgia-based growing and manufacturing system. The commission is to issue a report by the end of the year.

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