Medical marijuana studies take a step forward in Georgia

The state initiative to treat children with epilepsy and other disorders using medical marijuana took a step forward Tuesday. But Gov. Nathan Deal signaled he likely wouldn’t support legislation next year to legalize the drug for medical use.

The governor said Dr. Geoffrey Guy, the head of London-based GW Pharmaceuticals, has agreed to launch expanded clinical trials that would allow a broader range of children suffering from debilitating seizures to participate in studies on the use of cannabis oil.

There is no timetable for the start of the trials, but Deal said he’s hopeful they will get regulatory approval by early 2015.

“Time truly is of the essence,” Deal said after a meeting with the drug maker’s executives at Georgia Regents University in Augusta. “We want to get it right and we want to make sure our protocols are properly approved … but we need to show progress.”

The governor also said a separate effort by Georgia Regents to launch a clinical trial using cannabis oil obtained from federal regulators in Mississippi was making headway, though there is no firm timetable on its start either.

Deal’s two-pronged strategy came after Republican infighting scuttled legislation that would have made anyone in possession of a particular cannabis oil immune from prosecution and cleared the way for patients and their parents to travel out of state to find a supply. The cannabis oil in question is extracted from marijuana plants without THC, the chemical that produces a high.

But Deal, who faces re-election in November, said he wasn't likely to embrace a revival of the proposal in January. He said he was willing to talk to state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who sponsored the measure, but he was concerned that it could interfere with the ongoing studies.

“I would hope we give this process ample time to be fully vetted and fully implemented,” Deal said. “I don’t want us to see by legislative action for us to put something in place that would be detrimental to the process that we’ve already started.”

Peake said in a statement that he was “encouraged” by Deal’s efforts to help Georgia families with children who are suffering with seizure disorders but he stressed a need for a legislative solution that provide relief more quickly.

“The clinical trials with GW Pharma are showing great promise, for those that are fortunate enough to participate, and who have the luxury of waiting for the lengthy FDA approval process,” Peake said. “But there are children, and other citizens, who are suffering daily now, who need access to medical cannabis immediately. Some may not live long enough to wait for the trials to start.

“That is why I believe there is still a need to find a legislative solution quickly during the next session that will not hinder or interfere with the process the Governor has initiated, that will establish a framework for regulated access to cannabis oil for a broad range of citizens for specific and limited diagnoses, and can be put into place expeditiously, so that our citizens are not suffering, and dying, while they wait on a federal government approval process.”

Guy, in a lecture before his meeting with Deal, urged medical students to keep an open mind about medical marijuana and pointed to “encouraging” studies of the use of the drug for patients suffering from debilitating seizures.