Dispensaries are on track to begin doing business by late May or June.
“We’re very close to that great moment in time when patients are going to be able to get this treatment,” said Gary Long, CEO for Botanical Sciences, one of two companies licensed to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana in Georgia. “It’s culminating at a point where everything is going to come together.”
Georgia will be one of the last states in the nation with a functioning medical marijuana program, available only to people suffering from conditions including seizures, severe pain and terminal illnesses. About 40 other states already allow medical marijuana, including Southern states such as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
So far, over 26,000 patients and 19,000 caregivers have signed up, and those numbers are expected to drastically rise when Georgians finally have a way to buy the drug.
“I’ll believe it when I see it because it’s been such a long, drawn-out process,” said Beckee Lynch, who credits cannabis oil for her 16-year-old daughter’s survival through a lifetime of extreme seizures. “I’m excited for all the patients in Georgia for this finally coming to fruition.”
Still, Lynch says she’s concerned that the products sold in stores might not be as effective for her daughter as the oil she’s been using from an out-of-state company that didn’t receive a marijuana license in Georgia.
The state’s two licensed producers, Botanical Sciences and Trulieve, are able to sell, grow and manufacture medical marijuana oil, which can have no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Each can open six dispensaries, with stores planned in the areas of Augusta, Columbus, Gwinnett County, Marietta, Newnan and Savannah.
“Since Georgia announced plans to legalize medical cannabis, patients have been eagerly awaiting the ability to legally purchase life-changing medicine,” Trulieve Chief Marketing Officer Gina Collins said. “As a leading operator in multiple states, Trulieve is well-equipped to ensure a seamless introduction of medical cannabis for qualified patients across the state.”
Georgia’s program has repeatedly stalled since state laws in 2015 first allowed patients to consume medical marijuana and in 2019 set up a system to produce and sell it.
The law passed four years ago made most of marijuana companies’ information confidential, unlike other competitive bids for government contracts, fueling suspicions that the licensing process was unfair. Lawsuits from losing companies are still pending in court.
The General Assembly tried again this year to increase transparency and expand the number of marijuana production licenses to as many as 20, an attempt to appease companies suing the state. But the bill fell one vote short of passing, leaving the current process in place.
“We had no idea it would take this long,” state Sen. Matt Brass, a Republican from Newnan who opposed the bill, said during a debate on the Senate floor. “It was a very flawed process, and part of it was our fault because we put forward a flawed law.”
Botanical Sciences and Trulieve say their 100,000-square-foot greenhouses in Adel and Glennville will be able to provide more than enough cannabis oil to meet demand, but critics oppose the state-created duopoly on the market. Four more companies could receive licenses after lawsuits are resolved.
The last steps before medical marijuana can come to market include product testing and approval of dispensaries by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, which earlier this month signed off on the state’s first testing lab, SJ Labs and Analytics. Cannabis oil will be tested for THC levels, pesticides and ingredients.
“People now have a realistic opportunity to get medical cannabis,” said SJ Nicholls, the Macon-based lab’s founder and scientific director. “Before, you had to break the law at some point to get it. So it’s becoming more of a reality.”
Stores will only be able to sell to patients or caregivers who possess a valid Low-THC Oil Registry card that can be obtained following approval from a physician from the Department of Public Health. Recreational usage of marijuana remains illegal in Georgia.
“Access is imminent. It will happen very soon,” said Andrew Turnage, executive director for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. “It’s going to be a big, momentous day.”