‘Unlikely champion” to press for medical marijuana in Georgia

An effort to legalize the use of medical marijuana gained fresh momentum Monday when a powerful state lawmaker said he will introduce legislation this week.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the Republican caucus secretary, said his bill would allow seizure disorder patients to take orally an oil derived from the cannabis plant. Peake, who calls himself an “unlikely champion” of the movement, said his proposal would allow for medical marijuana that is “limited in scope, highly restricted, well regulated.”

His effort received a major boost when the Medical Association of Georgia, the state’s largest professional group of physicians, said it will support Peake’s effort.

The news was most welcome to Becky Gaunt of Marietta. Gaunt’s 22-month-old son, Connor, was born with tuberous sclerosis complex, which causes benign tumors that lead to seizures. Connor has undergone brain surgery and tried seven different medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration, none of which have stopped the seizures that have stunted his development.

“I try to stress to people who don’t understand that one, the kids aren’t smoking, and they’re not getting high,” said Gaunt, who noted that patients would drink the cannabis oil. “Brain surgery is so invasive and comes with so many dangers. To compare any possible dangers of medical cannabis to brain surgery doesn’t make any sense.”

Opposition to the idea remains. The idea of making legal what has long been both against the law and viewed as a moral hazard is a difficult one for many. For others, there’s also the fact that marijuana in any form, whether as a medication or a recreational drug, is illegal under federal law.

“People who buy marijuana today illegally are breaking no more laws than if they wait until Georgia passes its law,” said Jerry Luquire, the head of the Georgia Christian Coalition.

But Peake said 20 other states and the District of Columbia already allow the use of marijuana for medical reasons. Georgia already has laws on the books legalizing the use of marijuana by patients with cancer and other serious illnesses, but it’s never been used.

A state panel created by that 1980 law to review patient cases has for decades been inactive. Peake said his bill would revive it and add a series of steps that seizure patients would have to take to ultimately receive the medication. Private doctors would not be allowed to prescribe it, he said. Instead, a patient would follow a six-step process that begins with an application and includes review by a state-recognized academic research center.

“At the end of the day, we’ll have physicians making decisions,” Peake said.

The Macon lawmaker is a recent convert to the benefits of cannabis. He met a young girl in his district, Hayleigh Cox, who also suffers from seizures.

“Once I met Hayleigh and had a remarkable moment in time with her, I knew I couldn’t sit still,” he said. “If we waited a year to do a study committee, some of these kids will die.”

Getting the support of the Medical Association of Georgia was key, he said.

Dr. William E. Silver, MAG’s president, said the association supports existing state law that allows the use of marijuana for cancer and glaucoma patients and backs Peake’s efforts to add seizure sufferers.

“MAG applauds Rep. Peake for his efforts to help the limited number of families who require this kind of unique care in a thoughtful and deliberate and responsible way,” Silver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a statement.

Even with their support, Peake said: “It will be a minor miracle if it happens. If we can do it this session, it will be worth every ounce of political influence I have.”

Evidence of the unease many lawmakers have with the issue is that few were willing to comment on the record Monday. Many said they remained unconvinced and want to see research first.

State Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, who keeps a foot in both the libertarian and social conservative wings of the caucus, said he’s ready to learn more.

“I have an open mind,” Brockway said. “I hear conflicting data from people I trust.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has said he, too, has an open mind but needs to hear from the medical and scientific community before deciding where he stands.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, who has proposed creating a study committee on medical marijuana, said he supports Peake’s plan but wants it to go further.

“We need to look at this more globally, all the different medical conditions, all the different applications, and let’s get all the stakeholders at the table,” McKoon told the AJC.

Thus far, Gov. Nathan Deal has been more openly skeptical.

“I am not going to take a firm position on it,” Deal told the AJC last week. “I think there’s a strong case being presented by some of the families with very serious situations involving their children. The possibility of the General Assembly holding hearings is gaining momentum.”

But, he said, “it’s very premature for me to take a position.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff writers Kristina Torres and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.