A surprising mad dash to legalize medicinal pot in Georgia

You’ve seen the magazine ad: “You can save this child, or you can turn the page.” And the TV spots with the caged, abused puppies: “The situation is urgent, so we’re asking you to join in the next 10 minutes.”

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has drafted the legislative equivalent — a bill that will brook no delay, lest you be overwhelmed with guilt. Peake wants medical marijuana made legal in Georgia within the next several weeks.

Not a blue-ribbon panel. Not a study commission, as has been pitched by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.

House Bill 885 would be the real thing: outright protected status for the non-intoxicating oil made from cannabis, which has been shown — at least anecdotally — to substantially reduce seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy.

“The reality is, some of these kids don’t have a year. If we do a study or commission, they’ll die,” Peake said. “They’ll continue to suffer every day from additional seizures. They’ll continue to have their brain torn apart by every seizure that hits them every day.”

Or you can turn the page. It’s that kind of bill.

Aside from the after-effects of that pesky bit of snow, Peake’s measure to legalize medical marijuana is the biggest storm brewing in the state Capitol. And in an environment that is often cold and calculating, the sponsoring legislator admits that his commitment is an emotional one.

He’s fallen hard and fast. Four weeks ago, he couldn’t spell “cannabidiol,” the component in cannabis — Peake’s bill eschews the word “marijuana” — said to prevent or subdue seizures.

This weekend, Peake is headed for Colorado to visit a pair of Georgia families who have moved to that state, where recreational pot is legal, to get access to the medicine their kids need.

The Macon lawmaker has personally latched on to 4-year-old Haleigh Cox of nearby Monroe County, who suffers from seizures. “She looked just like my granddaughter. It really did hit me. If it were your child, you would be pushing us to do everything we can,” Peake said. “That was kind of the trigger point for me.”

His bill has 90 or so co-sponsors in a House with 180 members, and a first committee hearing Feb. 10, at which Peake plans to present the suffering kids, their parents and more than a few experts. He’s been trying to invite CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, an Emory University neurologist who has done a documentary on medicinal pot. (Dear CNN publicity department: This sounds like an opportunity worth exploring.)

Peake’s Capitol colleagues, even some of those who have signed onto his bill, are quietly expressing discomfort with the mad dash toward a mid-March finish line. Peake, himself, has picked up a Republican primary opponent.

“I’ve gotten to the place that I could care less about what this does to me politically, good or bad,” Peake said. “But it’s not fair for me to force that on my colleagues.”

And so he has made every effort to give them cover. He’s obtained declarations of neutrality from law enforcement groups. He’s reached out to tea partyers and religious groups — Catholics and Baptists. “We’re trying to build a coalition to protect my colleagues,” Peake said.

At every opportunity, Peake condemns the recreational use of marijuana.

“What I kept hearing when I jumped into this thing is that (the bill) needed to be tightly restricted, very regulated, managed by doctors, limited in scope, in oil-based form. That’s what we drew up,” he said. “We had to fight the perception from some of my colleagues that we were going to go down a path allowing 6-year-olds to smoke a joint and that we were going to have pot shops on every corner. Or that any physician in the state could prescribe it.”

Even so, many of his fellow legislators point to the obvious fact that the federal government has long banned marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. But Peake points out that 20 states have legalized medicinal marijuana. (Of those, Colorado and Washington also permit recreational use.)

The status of marijuana and its cousins is indeed changing. The farm bill now jetting through Congress — final passage could come this week — would allow academic institutions and state agencies in a handful of states to grow and research hemp without fear of prosecution by the federal government.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, identified himself as a lead negotiator on the inclusion of the hemp provision.

In Georgia, if Peake’s bill passes the House, it’s sure to undergo hefty scrutiny in the Senate, where Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

For years, groups backing the legal use of recreational marijuana have pressed their issue here, she noted. Unterman needs to be convinced that Peake’s bill isn’t an unwitting Trojan horse. “I just want to make sure the children aren’t being exploited for a bigger issue,” she said Friday. “That has to be alleviated before senators will consider this.”

As for Peake, he says that, in this case, haste may be exactly what people are looking for these days.

“Wouldn’t it be great to share with the public that government didn’t slow down the process, but that government — when we took a good honest look at the problem and the potential solution, that we moved quickly to fix it?” he asked.

“That’s what you saw on the snowstorm. That’s what everybody was complaining about last week,” he said. “We didn’t move quick enough.”