Jules Murphy, left, who has multiple sclerosis, joined other supporters and families in speaking in support of House Bill 324, a medical marijuana bill currently working its way through the state Senate. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

More limited Georgia medical marijuana sales bill advances

A bill to allow distribution and sales of medical marijuana oil in Georgia survived a key committee vote Wednesday but with major reductions to the number of dispensaries and growers allowed.

On a 7-2 vote, the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee backed legislation to allow distribution of the drug through up to 10 dispensaries statewide — down from 60 dispensaries previously — along with any pharmacies that might be willing to sell it. The revised bill would allow two growing licenses, a decrease from 10 initially proposed.

The proposal, House Bill 324, is intended to provide access to medical marijuana oil to patients who are allowed to use it but have no legal way to buy it. More than 8,400 people are already registered with the state to consume the oil.

Patients suffering from seizures, deadly cancers and other illnesses have been able to legally take medical marijuana oil in Georgia since 2015.

Senators said they wanted to limit the legislation to ensure it didn’t create a large marijuana industry that they worry could eventually lead to legalization of recreational marijuana consumption.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, the chairman of the upper chamber’s Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, explains the concerns his panel had that led to the changes it made in a medical marijuana bill. A substitute bill cleared the committee that would cut down on the number of growers and dispensaries that would manufacture and distribute a low THC oil for 8,400 patients on a state registry. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It’s for a very narrow subset of patients who are suffering from illnesses and diseases,” said the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Bill Cowsert, a Republican from Athens. “The original distribution system seemed overly broad for such a small number of patients. It seemed like overkill as far as supply.”

Under the revised bill, medical marijuana oil could initially be obtained from other states by a new Georgia commission and then sold to patients through dispensaries and pharmacies. The legislation would allow two private companies to grow medical marijuana, and two universities could start a research and manufacturing program.

Dale Jackson, a parent who gives the oil to his autistic son, said he’s glad the legislation advanced Wednesday, but he’s concerned that the new proposal would still limit access.

“The families certainly question the feasibility of the shipping option or the University System program,” said Jackson, who served on a legislative study committee that examined the issue last year. “The long-term solution is the free-market solution with private licenses.”

The limitations in the bill appeared to appease sheriffs who have tried to stop expansion of medical marijuana in Georgia. Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said he’ll recommend that sheriffs not oppose the bill.

Patients who have been using medical marijuana oil, which they’ve had to obtain illegally because state law doesn’t allow its purchase, said it’s a medicine that helps their conditions where other drugs fail.

Jules Murphy, who has multiple sclerosis, said legislators should help those who need access to medical marijuana oil.

“Recognize the challenges to those of us with critical chronic illnesses,” Murphy said at the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday. “We do need in-state access to the cannabis oils, and most importantly, that it be safe, with cultivation and distribution in-state without complications.”

Members of the Georgia Senate’s Regulated Industries and Utilities Committe vote to pass a substitute bill to House Bill 324, which would allow medical marijuana dispensaries for Georgia’s growing number of registered patients. Currently medical marijuana patients are allowed to use the drug, but they can’t legally purchase or transport it. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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 legislation prohibits smoking or vaping medical marijuana oil.

The legislation could next receive a vote from the full state Senate, and then the amended bill would have to return to the state House for further consideration. The House overwhelmingly approved the previous version of the bill earlier this month.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics/.

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