Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday signed into law a bill to grow and sell medical marijuana in Georgia, a milestone for patients who are allowed to use the drug but had no way to buy it.
The new law creates a new but limited marijuana industry in Georgia, with up to 9 acres of indoor growing space for cultivation of medical marijuana oil. The oil will then be sold to the state's growing number of registered medical marijuana users — 9,500 so far.
Georgia has allowed patients approved by a physician to possess cannabis oil since 2015, but until now, state law prohibited buying, selling or transporting the oil. Those restrictions forced patients and their families to buy the drug through the mail, by driving to other states or from friends.
“All they simply want is to be able to help their kids get well,” Kemp said before signing the bill at the state Capitol. “We’re ensuring these families can purchase what works for their loved ones without creating a slippery slope that undermines our values.”
While medical marijuana sales are now legal, that doesn’t mean they’ll start anytime soon. It will likely take well over a year before state-sanctioned medical marijuana oil reaches the hands of patients.
The state government still needs to appoint members of an oversight board, create regulations and license up to six private companies to grow medical marijuana. Then seeds will have to be planted and harvested, and the government will have to approve dispensaries to sell the product.
At least three companies hired lobbyists to push the bill during this year’s legislative session.
Families of patients surrounded Kemp and cheered the bill's signing, saying it will provide much-needed treatment for severe seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.
Katie Harrison, who uses medical marijuana oil to help reduce her 6-year-old son’s seizures, said it’s a “huge deal” for patients and their loved ones to have consistent access to medical marijuana without having to resort to the black market.
“It won’t be illegal to get our medicine anymore,” Harrison said. “It’s the only thing that’s really made a difference. We’ve seen all the other pharmaceuticals fail.”
Georgia joins 33 other states that already have medical marijuana programs. Ten states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
It’s still illegal in Georgia to smoke or vape marijuana. Only marijuana oil with less than 5% THC, the compound that gives pot its high, is allowed.
"This is a journey that has been long and hard-fought, but today is a victory for every one of these citizens," said state Rep. Micah Gravley, a Republican from Douglasville who sponsored the legislation.
A seven-member board, called the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, will be responsible for overseeing the program. The commission will be appointed by Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston.
“Now the hard work starts,” said Allen Peake, a former state representative from Macon who led the effort to legalize medical marijuana. “The implementation of the bill is crucial to making sure we get the process done efficiently and quickly, and get medicine to families as soon as possible.”
It’s possible that medical marijuana oil could reach patients through methods other than private growers.
The legislation Kemp signed, House Bill 324, allows pharmacies to sell the drug if they're licensed by the State Pharmacy Board.
The bill also calls for the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University to seek licenses to produce and manufacture the oil. In addition, the oversight commission could try to obtain medical marijuana from other states.
Supporters of medical marijuana said they’re hopeful that pharmacies or universities can help provide marijuana access, but they believe private companies will be the most reliable way for them to buy the drug.
"Families have had to go underground to get this oil. Now they'll be able to get it legally in the state of Georgia," said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus and chairman of the board for the Fort Valley State University Foundation. "The key is getting the commission appointed and up and running."
The University System of Georgia is reviewing the legislation and will work closely with the governor’s office and stakeholders to implement the law, spokeswoman Jen Ryan said.
The medical marijuana proposal was in jeopardy in the Georgia General Assembly until Kemp helped broker a deal between House and Senate leaders who had struggled to strike a balance between providing access to legitimate patients while preventing illegal marijuana distribution.
Georgia sheriffs and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Christian nonprofit organization, opposed the proposal, saying it would lead to greater drug use and eventual outright legalization for recreational purposes.
But after Kemp and legislative leaders reached a deal, the bill easily passed both the state House and Senate on the last day of this year's legislative session earlier this month.
WHY IT MATTERS
Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday signed into law House Bill 324, which will make it possible to grow and sell marijuana in Georgia for medical purposes. Until now, patients in the state who were allowed to use a low-THC cannabis oil had no way to obtain it legally. The 9,500 patients on the state registry use the drug for treating a range of illnesses and disorders, including seizures, terminal cancers and Parkinson’s disease.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution