Capitol Recap: Georgia approves first stores for sales of medical marijuana

Marijuana plants are ready for harvest in Botanical Sciences' 100,00-square-foot greenhouse in Glennville. Botanical Sciences is one of two companies now approved to begin selling the drug in Georgia for medicinal purposes.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Marijuana plants are ready for harvest in Botanical Sciences' 100,00-square-foot greenhouse in Glennville. Botanical Sciences is one of two companies now approved to begin selling the drug in Georgia for medicinal purposes.

Dispensaries in Macon, Marietta and Savannah area receive licenses

The long wait is over for patients and caregivers on Georgia’s medical marijuana registry who received the state’s permission to possess the drug eight years ago but have had no way to legally obtain it.

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission this past week approved licenses for dispensing the drug for five stores in Macon, Marietta and the Savannah area.

Trulieve, one of two companies licensed to produce marijuana for medicinal purposes in the state, said after the commission took its vote Wednesday that the company could open stores in Marietta and Macon in a matter of days, once the facilities pass inspections.

“It’s an understatement to say that significant progress has been made in getting safe and secure medication to certified patients across Georgia,” commission Chairman Sid Johnson said. “They’ve waited a long time for this relief.”

Legislators voted in 2015 to allow children suffering from seizures to use a cannabis oil with only 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high. Since then, the list of what can be treated with the oil has grown to include other illnesses and conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and terminal cancers.

But patients and families still had no legal way to get the drug, with many choosing to bring it in across state lines in violation of federal law.

The General Assembly offered new hope to patients in 2019 when it voted to allow up to six companies to produce and sell the oil in the state. Companies that were not selected, however, then filed lawsuits challenging the licensing process. Those suits are still pending in court.

Dispensaries will only be able to serve patients and caregivers who can show their Low-THC Oil Registry card and a photo ID. Registry cards can be obtained from the Department of Public Health following approval from a physician.

More than 27,000 patients are currently on the registry, as well as 19,000 caregivers. Those numbers are expected to significantly increase once stores open.

Trulieve and Botanical Sciences, the other company licensed so far to produce and sell the cannabis oil, will operate the dispensaries.

Additional dispensaries could open soon. Each company is allowed to open up to six dispensaries, and stores are planned in the Augusta, Columbus, Gwinnett County and Newnan areas.

More producers also could be coming. The state can still issue four more production licenses under the current law.

In an attempt to appease the companies suing the state, legislators this year considered expanding the number of marijuana production licenses to as many as 20. But the effort fell one vote short of passing.

A map showing dispensary locations will be available on the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission’s website before they open .

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis sent letters to law enforcement officials to inform them that between July 11 and Sept. 1 she plans to announce possible criminal indictments related to a special grand jury's investigation into efforts by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the state's 2020 election. She urged them to heighten security, saying her announcement “may provoke a significant public response.” (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Indictments could come this summer in Fulton’s Trump probe

Here’s the news that came out this past week about the Fulton County probe into Donald Trump’s efforts to meddle with Georgia’s 2020 election: We have a better idea about when more significant news might come out.

It could be some time between July 11 and Sept. 1.

That’s when Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis, in letters to local law enforcement officials, said she plans to announce possible criminal indictments.

She urged them to be ready for “heightened security and preparedness,” saying her announcement “may provoke a significant public response.”

Letters went to Fulton Sheriff Pat Labat, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum and Matthew Kallmyer, director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency.

Some observers speculate that Willis’ words of caution mean she will seek charges against Trump.

“I don’t think any of the other targets would raise that level of caution,” former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said. “I think that’s the obvious implication.”

Trump has called for mass demonstrations in response to what he calls overreach from prosecutors. Some fear the result could be violence on a par with the attack Trump supporters waged on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Porter, a Republican, said he expected prosecutors to move more quickly to present a potential case.

“But there is probably a tremendous amount of documentary evidence in terms of emails and texts they are having to go through,” Porter said.

Prosecutors recently acknowledged they were interviewing several of the fake GOP electors who had previously been labeled targets of the investigation after they tried to cast Georgia’s electoral votes for Trump in December 2020. It’s possible prosecutors have reached immunity deals with some of them and are now gathering new information.

In response to Willis’ letters, Trump’s legal team said in a statement that the correspondence does “nothing more than set for a potential timetable” for charging decisions.

Trump’s attorneys filed a motion seeking to dismiss Willis from the case, as well as any evidence compiled by the special grand jury.

“On behalf of President Trump, we filed a substantive legal challenge for which the DA’s Office has yet to respond,” attorneys Drew Findling, Jennifer Little and Marissa Goldberg said. “We look forward to litigating that comprehensive motion which challenges the deeply flawed legal process and the ability of the conflicted DA’s Office to make any charging decisions at all.”

In 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp faced boos from delegates to the state GOP's convention after he refused then-President Donald Trump's demands to illegally overturn the 2020 election. Kemp isn't going to this year's convention. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

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Credit: Nathan Posner

Kemp, other top Republicans plan to skip state party convention

If you want to go to the state GOP convention this summer, seats could be available: Gov. Brian Kemp and other top Republicans have indicated they don’t plan to attend.

Something akin to a really ugly family fight could have broken out in public if Kemp & Co. had decided to go. Under the best conditions, the gathering June 9-10 in Columbus would have been awkward.

Georgia Republicans have some issues to work out.

Kemp and other Republicans in statewide office, such as Attorney General Chris Carr, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Insurance Commissioner John King, helped the party maintain its grip on state government in 2022. But to do it, they first had to beat back challenges in the GOP primary by candidates further to the right — many of them backed by former President Donald Trump — who are at odds with the Republican establishment.

While they were soundly beaten in 2022, those far-right candidates have done well this year in winning positions in the state party’s leadership.

That includes Kandiss Taylor, who ran against Kemp in the primary, promising to “stand up to the Luciferian Cabal” and promoting conspiracy theories that Republican leaders were closet Communists and that Democrats were secret pedophiles. She drew only 3% of the primary vote but refused to concede.

Now, she’s the GOP chairwoman for the 1st Congressional District.

So Kemp, even with a 60% approval rating, isn’t going to the convention. It’s the best way to ensure he doesn’t face another outburst like he did at the 2021 convention, where some delegates booed him for refusing Trump’s demand to illegally overturn the 2020 election.

The governor put some distance between himself and the state Republican Party last year while running for reelection, especially after outgoing state GOP Chair David Shafer openly sided with Trump-backed challengers over Republican incumbents.

Instead, Kemp relied on his “leadership committee,” a fundraising vehicle that helped him raise more than $70 million for his reelection bid,. He’s now expanding the committee’s mission to compete with the Georgia GOP to help Republicans win races.

Kemp stressed in an interview with Channel 2 Action News’ Sandra Parrish and Fox 5′s Claire Simms that he “doesn’t have a rift with the state GOP,” although he didn’t make things sound hunky-dory either.

“I just think to win we have to have a robust ground operation,” Kemp said. “The state GOP was not doing that, so we did that ourselves. We had the current chairman that, you know, has been working against the statewide ticket. I’m hoping for new leadership at the party and looking forward to working with them in the future, but regardless of how that plays out, I mean, I’m going to stay engaged helping our legislative candidates, helping our nominee in 2024, ‘cause if we don’t win Georgia, we ain’t winning the White House.”

Georgia House Ways and Means Chair Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, will serve as a co-chair of a study panel that will examine the effectiveness of special-interest tax breaks that the General Assembly has handed out in recent years. Blackmon has said lawmakers need to be careful not to eliminate incentives for businesses to create jobs. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Panel to study whether state benefits from tax breaks it hands out

The heads of the General Assembly’s two tax-writing committees will direct an examination of special-interest tax breaks that cost the state — and save some individuals and businesses — billions of dollars.

House Ways and Means Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, and state Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, will serve as co-chairs of a study panel appointed by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns.

The panel will try to determine whether state tax breaks have been effective in creating or retaining jobs.

That hasn’t always been the case, according to state audit reviews issued last year. Most of the jobs credited to the tax breaks would have been created even without the credits or exemptions.

Sure to get a close-up before the panel will be the state’s $900 million-a-year film tax credit, which state auditors call the most lucrative such incentive in the country.

Tax breaks often begin with supporters providing testimony or data from industry lobbyists or other parties that would benefit from them. Those advocates often stress that such a measure will create or save jobs. That often proves too hard for legislators to resist, especially since the measures frequently come up for votes in the final hours of a legislative session, when the lawmakers are considering hundreds of bills with little time for a deep study.

Some members of the Senate have pushed to eliminate the tax breaks, hoping to use any savings to further reduce state income taxes.

But Blackmon said lawmakers need to be careful not to eliminate incentives for businesses to create jobs.

The House and Senate first turned a sharper eye on the tax breaks in 2021, when they passed legislation giving the chairmen of the tax-writing committees the ability to request reviews of a limited number of the measures each year.

In addition to Hufstetler, Jones also appointed to the panel Republican Sens. John Albers of Roswell, Greg Dolezal of Cumming and Bill Cowsert of Athens, and Democratic Sen. Michael “Doc” Rhett of Marietta.

Burns’ picks to join Blackmon were Democratic Rep. Debbie Buckner of Junction City, and Republican Reps. Kasey Carpenter of Dalton, Chuck Martin of Alpharetta and Bruce Williamson of Monroe. House Appropriations Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, will serve as an ex-officio member.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget team will also be involved in the review.

The panel is expected to make recommendations before the next legislative session begins in January.

Political expedience

  • Lobbyists’ spending increases as pandemic fades: Lobbyists at the state Capitol spent $642,000 during the legislative session to meet the nutritional and beverage needs of lawmakers, according to disclosures filed with the state ethics commission. That’s the same amount as last year, but well ahead of the $360,000 in expenses they logged in 2021 during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when it became more difficult to arrange face-to-face dinners with legislators. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, lobbyists spent $609,000 on lawmakers, so things are pretty much back to normal in lawmaker-legislator relations.
  • Groundbreaking senators: Georgia’s U.S. senators, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both attended a groundbreaking ceremony this past week for Wilkinson County’s first public sewer system. Ossoff and Warnock worked to include $6.3 million in last year’s federal appropriations to begin construction of the project in McIntyre, a hamlet of 568 people. The county had spent more than three decades trying to finance the system. Wilkinson residents currently rely on individual septic tanks.
  • ‘Obscene performances’ bill picks up support: Frontline Policy Action, a conservative lobbying group, endorsed legislation filed by state Rep. Tim Fleming, a Republican from Covington and a former chief of staff to Gov. Brian Kemp, that aims to “protect children from obscene performances.” House Bill 840 would penalize anyone who allows children to watch “sexually explicit conduct.” The definitions in the bill are far more general than those of Tennessee’s Senate Bill 3, which specifically bans minors from attending shows presented by exotic dancers and “male or female impersonators.” This was the first year of a two-legislative session, so HB 840 could still win passage next year.
  • Flyers target Jewish and transgender people: Flyers that promoted antisemitic beliefs and included anti-transgender messaging were recently dropped off at homes in intown Atlanta’s House District 90, represented by Democratic state Rep. Saira Draper. She tied the flyers to legislation the General Assembly passed this year banning medical interventions for transgender minors. “There is a direct line between these policy decisions and creating an environment that emboldens hate groups and normalizes discriminatory rhetoric,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s not enough for leaders to say they don’t tolerate hate; our policy agenda must do the same.” Earlier this year, antisemitic flyers were dropped on driveways in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, including at the home of state Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish member of the Legislature. They helped drive support in the General Assembly for a bill that would have covered antisemitism under the state’s hate crimes law, but the measure failed to gain a final vote before the Legislature adjourned for the year.
  • Vice president heading back to Georgia: Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Atlanta on May 12 to serve as headliner at the state Democratic Party’s Spring Soiree fundraiser. She was last in Georgia the first week of April, when she announced a $2.5 billion expansion of the Qcells solar panel plant in Dalton.
  • Biden taps Stone Mountain Democrat: State Rep. Billy Mitchell is adding to his duties after President Joe Biden appointed the Stone Mountain Democrat to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans.