Secrecy and protests surround Georgia medical marijuana companies

TheraTrue, one of six companies chosen by a Georgia board to produce medical marijuana, plans to open a production facility at the site of a former textile plant in Louisville.
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TheraTrue, one of six companies chosen by a Georgia board to produce medical marijuana, plans to open a production facility at the site of a former textile plant in Louisville.

Six businesses chosen to produce THC oil in Georgia

Few people had heard of Botanical Sciences LLC before it won a coveted license to produce medical marijuana oil in Georgia.

The company’s website is empty, displaying a logo on a teal background. The business was formed in January 2020, and it doesn’t operate in other states.

But its CEO is an Atlanta doctor specializing in pain management, and its board of directors includes former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, a Republican who voted against medical marijuana bills in Congress and briefly served as President Donald Trump’s health secretary.

Patients and medical marijuana advocates are questioning how Botanical Sciences and other inexperienced companies could come out on top following a competitive but secretive selection process by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, with most information blacked out in heavily redacted applications.

Fifteen of the 69 companies that applied for Georgia’s six licenses have filed protests, which could cause further delays for 20,000 registered patients with serious illnesses who lack a legal way to buy medical marijuana oil that state law allows them to use.

“I’m very concerned that some people were awarded licenses who had better-looking applications, but are those same people going to be able to produce quality oil that’s going to save my daughter’s life?” said Beckee Lynch, whose daughter takes cannabis oil to prevent grand mal seizures that lasted up to six hours at their worst.

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The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission voted unanimously on July 24 at the Walker County Civic Center to award medical marijuana licenses to six companies. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission voted unanimously on July 24 at the Walker County Civic Center to award medical marijuana licenses to six companies. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
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The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission voted unanimously on July 24 at the Walker County Civic Center to award medical marijuana licenses to six companies. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

The largest company chosen for a Georgia medical marijuana license is Trulieve, a Florida-based and publicly traded company.

Trulieve already operates in six states and plans to open a 100,000-square-foot growing facility in Adel in South Georgia. Trulieve employed some of the state’s most well-known lobbyists, including House Speaker David Ralston’s son, Matthew Ralston, and former Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland.

Besides Trulieve, two other companies chosen by Georgia’s medical marijuana board operate in various states, but the rest are Georgia-based startups.

The world’s largest cannabis company, Curaleaf, wrote in a protest letter to the commission that it had a duty to conduct a fair and open process, but instead it awarded licenses based on subjective and inconsistent criteria.

“The Cannabis Commission abdicated this responsibility and made decisions that lacked transparency, lacked rationality and unreasonably favored certain applicants over others,” Curaleaf states in the letter.

The commission, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and David Ralston, approved medical marijuana companies last month, six years after state law allowed patients to consume the drug but didn’t permit them to buy it in Georgia.

The businesses will be 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.

Most of the winning companies were unwilling to disclose information about their plans while protests are pending with the commission.

Besides the locations of their indoor growing facilities and letters of support for their communities, little has been made public about the companies’ ownership, employment, financial information, security plans and business operations.

Georgia’s medical marijuana law makes most information confidential, unlike other competitive bids for government contracts. The commission’s scoresheets for each company are private, and applicants kept most of their business information hidden from the public — and their competitors.

The chairman of Georgia’s cannabis commission, Dr. Christopher Edwards, principal surgeon for the Atlanta Neurological and Spine Institute, declined to comment while the process is ongoing.

The former state representative who first won passage of Georgia’s medical marijuana law, Allen Peake, said Price’s membership on Botanical Sciences’ board raises questions about the selection process.

“To have a guy who fought so diligently against everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish here in Georgia and then receive a license, it was a tough pill to swallow,” said Peake, who was denied a license. “It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

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Former state Rep. Allen Peake, the Republican from Macon who won passage of Georgia's first medical marijuana law, was denied a license to sell, grow and manufacture medical marijuana oil. He has raised an issue with former U.S. Rep. Tom Price's position on the board of one of the winning firms because he had voted against medical marijuana bills in Congress. “To have a guy who fought so diligently against everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish here in Georgia and then receive a license, it was a tough pill to swallow,” said Peake, who was denied a license. “It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Former state Rep. Allen Peake, the Republican from Macon who won passage of Georgia's first medical marijuana law, was denied a license to sell, grow and manufacture medical marijuana oil. He has raised an issue with former U.S. Rep. Tom Price's position on the board of one of the winning firms because he had voted against medical marijuana bills in Congress. “To have a guy who fought so diligently against everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish here in Georgia and then receive a license, it was a tough pill to swallow,” said Peake, who was denied a license. “It’s the height of hypocrisy.”
caption arrowCaption
Former state Rep. Allen Peake, the Republican from Macon who won passage of Georgia's first medical marijuana law, was denied a license to sell, grow and manufacture medical marijuana oil. He has raised an issue with former U.S. Rep. Tom Price's position on the board of one of the winning firms because he had voted against medical marijuana bills in Congress. “To have a guy who fought so diligently against everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish here in Georgia and then receive a license, it was a tough pill to swallow,” said Peake, who was denied a license. “It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Price declined to comment and directed questions to Botanical Sciences’ CEO, Dr. Robin Fowler of Alliance Spine and Pain Centers. Fowler and representatives for Botanical Sciences also didn’t comment.

Botanical Sciences, which along with Trulieve was chosen to receive a Class 1 license for a 100,000-square-foot growing facility, plans to operate in Glennville, a small city in southeast Georgia.

Letters of support from politicians, local businesses and county sheriffs aided the winning companies’ applications.

“As sheriff, I have seen that Botanical Sciences has worked hard to consult and engage with community members,” wrote Tattnall County Sheriff Kyle Sapp, who submitted one of 23 letters on the company’s behalf. “I was particularly impressed by their plans for community outreach programs, educational and youth initiatives. All of which are very important to us.”

The cannabis commission selected four other companies for Class 2 licenses to cultivate medical marijuana on 50,000 square feet of indoor growing space. None responded to requests for comment about their business plans.

One company, Treevana Remedy, was incorporated in Georgia by Gary Grant, a former California attorney who was disbarred after pleading guilty to possessing child pornography in 2009. A spokeswoman for Treevana said it has never employed Grant, and he was working for a California company, Corporation Builders Inc., that handled Treevana’s incorporation in December.

Treevana, which already operates hemp and CBD businesses in Georgia, plans a medical marijuana production facility located on the former campus of Central State Hospital in Milledgeville. The company didn’t answer questions about its capabilities and employment plans.

Natures GA is an affiliate of Nature’s Medicines, which operates in six states. Natures GA was the only winning applicant that filed its 774-page application without many redactions.

The CEO of Natures GA is Jigarkumar Patel, a registered pharmacist whose nephew was born with severe epilepsy and treats it with CBD oil. The company envisions $10 million in annual sales by its third year from a production facility in Dublin.

Another company, Fine Fettle, operates dispensaries in Connecticut and Massachusetts but doesn’t currently manufacture medical marijuana oil. It plans to do business in Macon.

TheraTrue Georgia intends to hire 50 full-time employees and convert a former textile plant in Louisville into a medical marijuana growing and processing facility. TheraTrue was founded by Paul Judge, a scientist and entrepreneur.

Georgia will join 36 states with medical marijuana programs, but it will be more limited than in most other states, said John Hudak, a researcher who studies cannabis policy for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy organization.

Each of the state’s six licensed production companies will be allowed to open five dispensaries that can only produce low THC oil for consumption by patients who receive approval from a doctor to treat conditions including seizures, terminal cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Established companies that have experience in the marijuana industry will be able to get their business running quickly, Hudak said. Startup companies might struggle.

“There’s a risk they will not be as ready on day one as the companies that have been doing this for a decade and operating in several states,” Hudak said. “If the newer companies look around at the industry, talk to people and oftentimes hire people from other companies, they’ll begin to understand quickly what is necessary to make this work.”

It’s unclear how much time it will take to resolve the protests filed by losing companies. Their protests will be reviewed by an administrative hearings officer before license awards to six companies are made official. Lawsuits could follow.

After contracts are signed, companies will have one year to begin operations.

The protesting companies said they expected a more objective process from the state government that would have awarded licenses to the most qualified companies. Their protests allege inconsistent scoring by the state’s cannabis commission and criteria that weren’t clearly defined.

“It’s an injustice to the state of Georgia. This is supposed to be about the patients,” said Charles Arnold, co-founder of Cumberland Curative, which intended to produce medical marijuana oil at a facility in Wrightsville. “It’s not just about the money and politics. There are victims at the end of this. There are people suffering from severe and debilitating illnesses.”

Shannon Cloud, a longtime advocate for low THC oil who uses it for her 16-year-old daughter’s seizures, said she hopes medical marijuana sales in Georgia aren’t held up for long by the licensing process.

“We’re ready to move on and have patients get the medicine,” Cloud said. “It doesn’t matter who gets the licenses as long as they do a good job. There are going to be thousands of patients who want to get it as soon as they can.”


Medical marijuana licensing in Georgia

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, a board appointed by the state’s most powerful Republican elected officials, chose six companies to begin producing and distributing low THC oil to the state’s 20,000 registered patients.

But 15 companies filed protests against the award, alleging that the process was subjective, inaccurate and opaque. Protests must be resolved before the commission finalizes licenses to the companies.

Companies chosen to produce medical marijuana

Trulieve Cannabis Corp. is a publicly traded company that operates in six states and is based in Florida. Trulieve plans to operate a facility in Adel near I-75.

Botanical Sciences LLC was incorporated in Roswell last year and would grow medical marijuana in Glennville.

FFD GA Holdings is affiliated with Fine Fettle, a Connecticut-based company that runs dispensaries in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Its Georgia production facility would be located in Macon.

Natures GA LLC is affiliated with Nature’s Medicines, a marijuana company with locations in six states. Its Georgia facility would be in Dublin.

TheraTrue Georgia LLC was formed in Georgia last year and was founded by Paul Judge, a scientist and entrepreneur. It would operate a pharmaceutical plant in the former Cadet Manufacturing building in Louisville.

Treevana Remedy Inc. is affiliated with Treevana Wellness, which is headquartered in Atlanta and sells hemp-based products including CBD oil. Treevana plans to run a production facility on the location of the former Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.

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