State panel: No cultivation of medical marijuana in Georgia

A quick expansion of Georgia’s medical marijuana likely went up in smoke Wednesday when a state-sanctioned board voted down a proposal to allow the plants’ cultivation within the state.

The decision by the Commission on Medical Cannabis came a day after House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wants to give Georgians access to cannabis oil made from homegrown marijuana.

The commission held their last meeting of the year and made initial recommendations about improving the state’s new law.

Passed earlier this year, the law allows Georgians to use a limited form of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight illnesses including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

Both law enforcement officials and Gov. Nathan Deal, have expressed concerns about contradicting federal law if Georgia were to allow cultivation in-state.

“Federal law makes criminals out of people who would cultivate” marijuana even for medicinal purposes, said Brian Rickman, a commission member and a North Georgia district attorney. “I will vote against it, but it is not because I have some moral opposition. I feel so strongly the federal government needs to step up to the plate” and change its laws.

Ralston said he considered legislation to approve cultivation of medical marijuana “the next step.” He also praised state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who authored the new law and has been trying to gain traction for in-state cultivation.

“Rep. Peake has done some very detailed and thorough work on that issue to try and craft a model that seems to be working in some other states, like Minnesota,” Ralston said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to pass a bill. Unless and until we do that then (the new law) will be simply an unfulfilled hope for the families that have loved ones who are experiencing some of these conditions.”

The commission’s report is due to Deal by year’s end. State lawmakers reconvene on Jan. 11, when they could debate the limited recommendations the commission made, including a new advisory board to oversee expansion of the number of illnesses eligible for the program.

The panel also wants lawmakers to urge Congress to lift a federal ban on the transportation of medical cannabis across state lines. Several members of the panel said fears over federal prohibitions caused them to vote against the cultivation question.

“This is not a ‘no’” forever, said state Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, a member of the commission. “It is a ‘no’ today. Literally, the federal government could come in and shut down the progress we’ve made to date.”

Lawmakers in March approved the landmark law that allows patients to possess up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil if a physician signs off. About 300 families are enrolled in the program, which went live in June when a new state registry began signing up patients.

But while state law makes it legal for those patients to have and use the drug, they must travel to other states to get it, which makes them vulnerable to criminal charges of drug possession in other states.

Essentially, state lawmakers only created a way for some people to be protected from prosecution for having the oil in their possession while within Georgia’s borders.

Many families now struggle with how to buy the oil and get it home. Some had talked about traveling to other states including Colorado — where companies manufacture certain strains of the oil most effective for their children. To get it home, they’re left with a decision of whether to sneak the oil on board carry-on luggage, stuff it into their checked suitcase or to try to ship it.

Peake said he still expects to file a bill to allow cultivation, but acknowledged it would “take a miracle” to get it passed given opposition from the governor, law enforcement agencies and now the commission. He took heart, however, that the commission backed his suggestion that Minnesota had the most promising law should Georgia ever decide to consider cultivation.

Minnesota created a medical marijuana program in 2014. Two companies were awarded contracts to manufacturer the medicine, which is available as pills, liquids or oils at eight state distribution centers. As in Georgia, patients in Minnesota must be certified by a physician, although that state allows medical marijuana use for nine disorders including HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, Tourette Syndrome and terminal illness.