Senate panel backs new, less restrictive plan for medical marijuana

A likely medical marijuana compromise won passage Thursday in a key Senate committee, raising chances this year that lawmakers will legalize a limited form of the drug in Georgia.

The rewrite of House Bill 1 by Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, would allow cannabis oil to be used to treat eight of the nine disorders sought by the House in that chamber’s own medical marijuana 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.

The remnants of what had been a standing-room-only crowd at the four-hour meeting — which also started 40 minutes late because a Senate GOP caucus meeting ran long — cheered the bill’s passage. It also got a thumbs up from state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who has led the effort to legalize a limited form of medical marijuana over the past two years.

“I am incredibly grateful to what you have presented,” Peake told Unterman. “We’re going to get a deal done here.”

The tilt toward compromise came a week after the Senate approved its original proposal, the narrowly written Senate Bill 185, which would have restricted use of a non-intoxicating cannabidiol for only state-sponsored clinical trials involving children who suffer frequent epileptic seizures.

HB 1, in contrast, had always been much broader and is now the likely candidate to move ahead.

It would make it legal for someone with a doctor’s recommendation to register with the state and seek a limited amount of the oil as long as the drug met the mandates sought in the bill. Under Unterman’s rewrite, it would also legalize the clinical trials outlined in SB 185 to further study how the drug works.

The new version now heads to the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which will decide when it would get a floor vote. Further negotiations over the final version of the bill are still possible, given that the House would need to sign off on what the Senate did.

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