Medical marijuana dispensaries bill passes Georgia House

The Georgia House approved a bill Tuesday that would allow medical marijuana oil to be sold to registered patients, giving them a legal way to obtain a drug that they're already allowed to use.

The legislation, which passed on a 123-40 vote, would permit medical marijuana growing, manufacturing, testing and distribution. Sixty dispensaries would serve the state’s rising number of physician-approved medical marijuana patients — more than 8,400 so far. Marijuana would remain illegal for recreational use.

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Georgia has allowed patients suffering from severe seizures, deadly cancers and other illnesses to use medical marijuana oil since 2015. But it’s against the law to grow, buy, sell or transport the drug, leaving patients no permissible method of obtaining it.

"These aren't people who are seeking a recreational high. These aren't people who are seeking to use illicit drugs," said state Rep. Micah Gravley, a Republican from Douglasville. "These are people who have tried and failed with opioids. These are people who want their children to suffer less seizures."

The measure, House Bill 324, now advances to the state Senate. Gov. Brian Kemp has previously said he's open to "research-based expansion" of medical marijuana.

If approved, Georgia would join 31 states that already allow some form of marijuana cultivation, according to the Joint Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access, a group of lawmakers and stakeholders that recommended licensing marijuana growers, manufacturers and dispensaries.

Opponents of the proposal, including sheriffs and some religious groups, say it could lead to outright marijuana legalization.

“The path Georgia is taking now is a very treacherous and dangerous path,” said Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “The sheriffs are serious when they say that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive gateway drug. Even though we’re not taking about legalizing for recreational purposes, we believe all the notoriety of this discussion will lead to increased marijuana use by children.”

The legislation would prohibit smoking or vaping medical marijuana oil.

Georgia’s medical marijuana program allows registered patients to use marijuana with up to 5 percent THC, the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

The law covers 16 conditions, including severe seizures, deadly cancer, peripheral neuropathy and multiple sclerosis. Patients who register with the state are protected from criminal prosecution for possessing up to 20 fluid ounces of low-THC oil.

Last year, the General Assembly added post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain to the list of conditions eligible for treatment by cannabis oil.

"It was hypocritical to me to pass bills to let this substance be available to the sickest folks that needed it, the worst, and yet we didn't give them the access to get it," said Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, a Republican from Hartwell. "There's nothing in this bill that will encourage recreational use."

This year’s legislation proposes that the state license a total of 60 medical marijuana dispensaries, split between large growers and distributors, smaller-scale companies and stand-alone retailers.

Initial licenses would cost $150,000 for large companies, $37,500 for smaller companies and $30,000 for retailers. Businesses would also have to pay annual license renewal fees ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.

Licenses would be approved by Jan. 1, and state-sanctioned medical marijuana products would be available to patients within 12 months of the license date.

A separate bill that the state House approved last week would allow hemp farming in Georgia. Hemp, with less than 0.3 percent THC, could be processed into CBD oils that are legally sold in stores.

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