How far will Georgia’s medical marijuana program go?

State officials are already preparing for the legalization of medical marijuana. But political leaders remain divided over how far the new program should go.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order Friday that directs state agencies to start making the back-office changes to allow the use of cannabis oil. At an emotional ceremony surrounded by families who could benefit from the drug, he pledged to sign House Bill 1 once the legislative session ends next week.

That would set the stage for the limited use of cannabis oil to treat disorders that include cancer, sickle cell disease and epilepsy. It would also establish a new commission charged with regulating the use of the drug in Georgia and take up future recommendations over whether the program will be expanded.

Perhaps the biggest question involves whether the state should allow the in-state cultivation of the drug. Under the proposal, families would still have to get the cannabis oil from out-of-state providers such as those in Colorado, where it is now legal. Some families wasted no time in advocating for the next change.

“We’re all in agreement that cultivation is our next big step. We’re going to look at Governor Deal and hopefully he’ll be able to help us with that,” said Janea Cox, who has lived for months in Colorado so her 5-year-old daughter can receive treatments. “Cultivation makes this a working bill so we’re not having to go out of state to get this medication. We can regulate it here.”

State Rep. Allen Peake, who championed the legislation, said the commission would be charged with determining the best model of in-state cultivation by the end of the year. Deal, standing next to them both at the event, sounded a more wary note.

“We’re going to be very cautious and very careful. I think the legislation authorizes the process where hopefully, at some point in time, that can be achieved,” he said. “We want to be able to bring children home from Colorado without us having to become Colorado. And I believe that’s what this executive order and the law actually does.”

The state must also build a system from the ground up that allows patients and their doctors to apply for a permit to legally use the drug. Deal’s executive order clears the way for the Department of Public Health and law enforcement agencies to begin setting up the process.

And officials must navigate prickly legal questions in allowing the use of a federally banned drug, even as Congress considers legislation that would allow Georgia and other states to regulate medical marijuana without federal prosecution.

“Most families are at the point where they’re moving heaven and earth for their children,” said Cox, whose daughter Haleigh suffers from intractable epilepsy. “If I had to break federal law, I’ll gladly do it. If they want to come get us, then come get us.”

The signing ceremony was partly a celebration of an effort that seemed the longest of long shots when it first emerged more than two years ago.

It began as an effort to ensure a handful of children suffering from unrelenting seizure disorders gain access to the drug. But it was broadened to allow adults as well as children after a legislative study committee held hearings across the state last year.

The final version would allow cannabis oil to be used to treat eight disorders: cancer, Crohn’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, mitochondrial disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, seizure disorders and sickle cell disease.

As the legislation wound its way through the statehouse, hundreds of families with children suffering from incurable diseases and symptoms took up the cause. At least 17 Georgia families have moved in the past year to places such as Colorado, and some became frequent presences at the statehouse.

Legislators struck a compromise this year with the help of Peake. His bill passed despite resistance from conservatives who wanted stricter limits on the drug and overcame the legislative infighting that doomed the proposal last year.

Mike Hopkins, who was also at the ceremony, was teary-eyed as he thanked lawmakers for their work. He lost two of his children to seizure disorders in the past year and temporarily relocated to Colorado so his 17-year-old daughter Michala could use the oil.

So far, so good. She suffered from 356 seizures in the two months before she started taking the oil. She’s only had 53 in the two months since. But he also made clear his work is far from done.

“This is an incredible opportunity,” Hopkins said. “This is a first step. We’ve got a long way to go.”

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