Medical marijuana gains Senate approval in Georgia

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Within days, Georgia could become the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana after the Senate passed a bill Tuesday to allow a limited form of the drug to treat disorders including epilepsy, sickle cell disease and cancer.

The vote represents a compromise over competing efforts at the Georgia Legislature, pitting conservatives wanting strict limits on allowing the federally banned drug into the state vs. hundreds of families dealing with intractable diseases and symptoms.

It now sends House Bill 1 back to that chamber for agreement on the measure, which appears all but likely.

“I fully expect to be able to agree to it (Wednesday) and have it sent to the governor” for his signature, said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

HB 1 would make it legal for someone with a doctor’s recommendation to register with the state and seek a limited amount of cannabis oil, as long as the drug met the mandates sought in the bill.

It passed easily, but not until after some senators tried to gut the bill during the chamber’s floor debate. Led by state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, they said the safest way to introduce use of the oil in Georgia would be doing so only under strict medical supervision in a four-year clinical trial overseen by the federal Food and Drug Administration. They also wanted to limit the oil’s strength and manufacture, saying the state was getting ahead of proven science.

Most of their colleagues disagreed, taking little more than an hour to beat back the charge as a nervous Peake watched intensely from the chamber’s corner. After the vote, advocates and families who made the trek to the Capitol hugged, cried and shouted in joy, nearing the end of a 15-month battle that in the Senate garnered 48 yeses against 6 nos.

The Cloud family declared it a victory for their 8-year-old daughter Alaina, who has suffered through severe seizures and developmental delays her entire life. Eight-year-old Ava Fowler has been battling constant seizures from epilepsy — her mom, Sarabeth, said she hoped it would allow her daughter to “be a new child.”

Countless other families saw the vote as a pathway to what they believe is a way to alleviate severe symptoms caused by Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis.

“Our daughter Alaina, she’s on five medications,” Shannon Cloud said. “If cannabis oil works for her, she might wake up and be a completely different child when she’s not addicted and high on the medications that she’s on now.”

At least 17 Georgia families in the past year have moved to places such as Colorado where the oil’s use is allowed in limited amounts. Peake said the bill would allow those “medical refugees” to come home.

He also praised Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who rewrote HB 1 last week as a way to merge a much more restrictive medical marijuana measure already approved in the Senate with a much broader effort already approved by the House.

The shout-out was notable, since it was Unterman who last year unsuccessfully used medical marijuana as a wedge that sank it and other bills in the final minutes of the 2014 legislative session.

HB 1 as now written would allow cannabis oil to be used to treat eight of the nine disorders sought by the House in that chamber’s own proposal: cancer, Crohn’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), mitochondrial disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, seizure disorders and sickle cell disease.

It would expand on a previous Senate proposal that would restrict usage to children and, instead, open the door to both children and adults as being eligible for treatment. It would, however, eliminate one disorder favored by the House — fibromyalgia — as being an accepted disorder for treatment.

And it would set a higher bar for what type of oil would be allowed: The oil could contain no more than 5 percent THC — the high-inducing chemical associated with recreational marijuana use — and must include at least a matching amount of cannabidiol to ensure better purity and quality of the drug.

It would also legalize clinical trials sought by some senators to further study how the drug works.

State passage would come as Congress also debates the issue, with the U.S. Senate considering legislation to allow states to regulate medical marijuana without federal prosecution.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act, or CARERS Act, would reclassify marijuana under federal laws from a criminalized substance to one with recognized medical uses. Marijuana is currently 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.

Twenty-three states allow medical marijuana in limited form. Four additional states and the District of Columbia have passed measures that also allow recreational use of the drug.

“It’s not over for these families,” Peake said of Georgia’s effort. “They are still going to have to deal with a special needs child every single day. But if it improves one day in the quality of life for that child, then it’s worth it.”