Medical pot is legal in Georgia, but one family still can’t come home

Seven-year-old Tripp’s medicine carries an overpowering aroma that would not be out of place at a concert or college dorm room because it is a marijuana derivative that can get you high if heated for a period of time. But Tripp does not get high because he takes it at room temperature, swallowing the fragrant olive oil mixture twice a day to forestall the seizures that have plagued him since he was 6 months old.

Georgia this year passed a law to allow possession of cannabidiol, a marijuana derivative that does not cause intoxication, after an emotional, high-profile battle in the Gold Dome. The law allowed more than a dozen Georgia families to move home from Colorado, where recreational and medical marijuana of all kinds is legal.

A state commission is now looking into new legal frontiers, such as how to produce the oil in Georgia so patients don’t have to take it across state lines in possible violation of federal law.

But cannabidiol does not have enough THC to get you stoned. Tripp’s THCA does, raising the possibility of abuse, and a far tougher political lift.

“The fact that we left this precious family still behind is just a gut punch,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who has led the medical marijuana fight in the Legislature

Peake visited Colorado this week on a fact-finding trip along with top aides to Gov. Nathan Deal and leaders from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

While Peake vowed to push, he did not sound optimistic that the Olivers could come home anytime soon, considering that a major selling point to legalize CBD was that it does not cause a high.

“It’s hard to explain that in the legislative process that: ‘OK guys, we need to have a higher level of THC, but it’s in the form of THCA non-heated, and therefore not psychoactive,’” Peake said. “It’s a hard sell to my colleagues.”

So Tripp and his mother, Laura, remain in a suburb of Colorado Springs, with father Chip traveling out from Commerce when he can get away from the demands of his business. Laura has learned to drive in the snow and Tripp misses the beach, always his favorite.

They have not left Colorado in nearly two years because Tripp cannot be without his medicine and Laura – a scrupulous rule follower – does not want to risk carrying it somewhere where it is illegal.

“We’re the only ones who are being honest,” Laura said, indicating other families have taken THCA home.

**

Tripp was 6 months old in April 2009, a perfectly normal baby, when his parents found him shaking uncontrollably in his crib.

It took about a year of increasingly terrifying seizures and trips to the emergency room before a doctor in Memphis diagnosed Tripp with a severe form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome. The family started traveling to Memphis every three months for treatment.

Laura became an expert on the disease, traveling to conferences near and far. At a 2012 presentation in Minnesota, a parent of a child with Dravet spoke up.

“What are you doing about marijuana studies?” asked the parent, Jason David, an early advocate for the practice in California.

Laura turned to her mother-in-law: “Did he just say marijuana?” They both started laughing.

“That man is crazy,” Laura recalled thinking at the time. “Who is going to be letting their kids smoke pot to help their seizures?”

She replays the moment now with a tinge of regret.

“If I had spent five minutes talking to that guy, I would have been years beyond where I am now, learning,” Laura said.

She also knows her initial discomfort is shared by so many others in a conservative state like Georgia.

“I’m so straight laced … even saying I’m going to give my son oil, I had a hard time,” Laura Oliver said. “I didn’t want to tell anybody. Because I was like: They’re going to think I’m crazy. I’m giving my child marijuana.”

By late 2013 she had started to hear more about “Charlotte’s Web,” a strain of cannabidiol helping young Charlotte Figi with her seizures. More and more families were moving to Colorado.

The Olivers made the big move in the beginning of 2014. Laura told herself it would be brief, because the Legislature was working on a bill, but it failed in the 2014 session.

So they settled into a rental house in a golf course subdivision outside Colorado Springs, with snow-capped Rockies in the distance.

Because Charlotte’s Web had a long waiting list, Tripp’s medical marijuana doctor, Margaret Gedde, tried out THCA. Almost immediately, it was like a fog had lifted. He was speaking in full, complicated sentences rather than four-word bursts.

Best of all, he was going unprecedented amounts of time without a seizure — four-and-a-half weeks at one point.

By January, Tripp got to the front of the waiting list for Charlotte’s Web, as Georgia took strides toward legalizing it. But when Tripp tried the new medicine, it seemed to make things worse. He was seizing every day. After months of tinkering, Laura is now gradually moving Tripp from CBD back to THCA, which remains contraband at home.

He is doing better, with a little more than a week going by between seizures, but Tripp’s development has been severely hampered by the syndrome. He’s in a special needs class, along with speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Though he is 7 years old and 58 pounds, he acts about 2. Lately his favorite word is “No.”

But on a recent trip to the doctor, there was little resistance. Tripp treated a needle and another couple vials of blood with nonchalance as he watched Blue’s Clues. He’s spent so much of his young life being poked and prodded, the pricks have become normal.

**

More than 1,300 miles away, Georgia leaders are wrestling with how to implement a medical marijuana program. A commission created by this year’s law and headed by Peake is to submit nonbinding recommendations to the governor and the Legislature by the end of the year.

At a recent hearing, GBI Director Vernon Keenan said Georgia should track federal pharmaceutical law if it puts together a medical marijuana regime.

“There’s already standards in place from the Drug Enforcement Administration that regulate pharmacies and gives the elements for restrictions and way to do business,” Keenan said. “It would be my position: Why would we deviate from the DEA regulations already in place?”

Keenan was in a Georgia delegation that toured medical marijuana labs and met with law enforcement leaders in Colorado this week. A GBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the trip, but Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber said the challenges facing Colorado law enforcement left an impression.

The group heard from Lewis Koski, head of Colorado’s marijuana enforcement division, which is housed in the state’s Department of Revenue. Koski told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has spoken to state officials from around the country about implementing a new regulatory regime from scratch.

“Without question, this has definitely been a paradigm shift for law enforcement here in the state of Colorado,” Koski said. “From a commercial standpoint, one thing that really changed is how we have companies that are comprehensively regulated and acting transparently out in the marketplace, where in advance of this everything was illegal.”

The way forward for Georgia remains murky, and with the White House set to change hands in little more than a year, federal enforcement is up in the air.

Lawmakers and Deal could choose to stand pat next session and give this year’s law time to be implemented. Peake hopes that is not the case, and said he will bring up “this THCA issue” next year, in the hopes of bringing the Olivers home.

But the Georgia delegation visit to Colorado this week did not include a stop at a tidy home in Peyton, where Tripp was sprawled out on the floor on a recent Monday, thumbing through a case of DVDs, dressed in sleepwear for pajama day at school.

The area caters to a kid like Tripp: In his special needs class of six, three have Dravet Syndrome. Aside from their now-departed Georgia friends, the Olivers have grown close to other medical refugees from around the country and from other nations. The kids play together and have the same quirks, such as heavy interest in trains and looking at themselves in the mirror.

“It’s an automatic sense of community, which is sort of nice and strange – very strange – but it never felt like I was by myself,” Laura said.

But many of their new friends are now back in Georgia. Given Tripp’s bad reaction to CBD, they are sticking with THCA, and that means sticking with Colorado for a while longer.

“The hope is as fast as the country seems to be shifting their view on medical marijuana, they would come around,” Laura said of her fellow Georgians. “So we’ll see.”

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