Legalizing marijuana in Georgia

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Legal marijuana may be coming to Georgia next year, at least in some form. The leading bill expected to be filed in the General Assembly will allow Georgians to use cannabis oil to reduce the seizures that accompany epilepsy and other illnesses. But a state senator is taking a broader approach. He’s filed legislation that would expand access to multiple forms of medical marijuana. He also calls for a referendum to amend the state constitution and permit marijuana’s recreational use. Today, we hear from lawmakers sponsoring the bills.

“Time to provide relief for citizens”

By Tom Sabulis

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has led the effort to legalize medical marijuana in Georgia. He co-chairs the joint legislative committee that has studied the topic and is finalizing a bill aimed at allowing Georgia’s “medical refugee” families to return home — families with seizure-stricken children who have moved to states where they can access legal cannabis oil. That strain of marijuana has been shown to greatly reduce seizures in patients suffering from epilepsy and other illnesses. Peake spoke to me Wednesday before the final committee hearing.

Where do we stand as the committee hearings come to an end?

We’ve learned a lot. We chatted with law enforcement, the medical profession, with citizens with different diagnoses. The overwhelming sentiment is that it is time to provide relief for citizens who are hurting. I believe we’ve found a good compromise — a good, safe, restricted position in HB 1.

When will the bill’s details be disclosed?

We’re almost there. We want to get the findings from the committee and finalize the bill. I’m hoping that by the end of December, we’ll have the bill that we can put out publicly.

What do you expect it to accomplish?

We had two missions, really, since the end of last session. Very simply, bring Georgia families back home — those families who have become medical refugees to seek cannabis oil in other states. Secondly, we want to establish a safe, legal, effective and timely regulatory structure in Georgia for the growing, processing and dispensing of cannabis oil.

We should grow marijuana here?

We have to find a solution inside our own borders. There are certain parameters crucial to that. It’s medical cannabis oil. It’s in a non-smokable form. It has a low enough amount of THC to be effective but can’t get you high. We want to follow the guidelines Gov. Deal has said he would (need) to consider any medical marijuana bill: Is it safe? Is it legal? And is it recommended by doctors and supervised by doctors?

The medical community says it needs more study.

That is a concern. There hasn’t been enough clinical trial analysis. There’s only been anecdotal evidence that it works. But that anecdotal evidence is pretty darn strong. I know these families, and every single one has said they would do it again, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done for our child. They’ve all seen seizure reduction. They’ve seen improved cognitive ability. The anecdotal evidence is so overwhelming, it cannot be ignored. And for us to ignore it, by not doing anything because we’re waiting for additional clinical analysis, I think is unmerciful.

So we’re going to cultivate and regulate it here?

That is the only way we can do it and regulate it the way we need to, to make sure we have a safe product, to make sure we have enough for our citizens to access, and not risk transporting it across state lines (which federal law prohibits). We’ve got to grow it, cultivate it, process it and dispense it here in Georgia in order to make it effective.

Who’s going to do that?

The path that we’re going down is to allow private industry to do this. HB 1 will include a limited number of licenses for growers, processors, retailers. We’re probably looking in the five to six range. We’re not going to open this up to anybody who wants to grow marijuana. The hope would be that in every major market, there would be a retail facility where citizens could access cannabis oil, so they’re not driving four or five hours to get it.

You can’t walk in off the street and get it?

You’d have to be a qualified patient, which would mean you have to have a qualified diagnosis. You’d need a recommendation from a qualified physician. There are strict guidelines of who would be able to access it.

Do bills calling for expanded use of marijuana complicate the passage of your bill?

It may confuse the average citizen who doesn’t understand there (are) several different bills. That’s frustrating, that people may think Georgia is about to pass a bill legalizing recreational use of marijuana. Let me make it real clear: I will fight with as much passion and energy to make sure we don’t have legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes in our state as I’m fighting for these kids to have access to medical cannabis oil. The path of legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes is the wrong path to go, in my opinion.

Do you think your bill can pass in 2015?

I do. We’ve all become educated on this issue, that we ought to give parents and families and citizens the right to make a personal choice along with their physician that’s in the best interest of their child, or for themselves.

State Representative Allen Peake is a Republican from Macon.

Take advantage of medical, economic benefits

By Curt Thompson

Few would disagree that physicians need every good tool in their medical toolbox to provide the best short and long-term health care to their patients — whether that tool is a new diagnostic test, a new antibiotic or a form of proven pain reliever.

During the 2015 legislative session, we will have the opportunity to provide our doctors with an additional tool, by legalizing marijuana for medical use. This summer, a joint study committee examined the options for legalizing marijuana, and already, three bipartisan bills have been filed.

I have authored SB 7, which would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana of up to two ounces for specific debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, Chrone’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and the chronic or debilitating condition that cause Cachexia (wasting syndrome), severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, and seizures/muscle spasms from epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.

SB 7 also includes a number of common-sense limitations and guardrails for dispensing the drug. Marijuana, like any other prescription drug, would be regulated.

To advance the conversation of marijuana use, I have also authored SR 6, a measure that would legalize, regulate and tax the sale of retail marijuana through licensed establishments. The tax collections would be constitutionally earmarked for education and transportation infrastructure. The resolution, if passed, would allow for a referendum in 2016 on amending the state Constitution to allow full legalization of marijuana, including recreational use.

If approved by voters, retail marijuana would co-exist with, not replace, medical marijuana. SR 6 includes lengthy requirements about licensing facilities, excise taxes and fees, and the creation of a state authority to regulate the sales.

Our discussions of marijuana in Georgia — in its many forms — have been largely limited to children’s health. While I adamantly support cannabis oil treatments for children with severe medical problems, I believe physicians should have the ability to care for all of their patients regardless of age, socio-economic status or where they live. SB 6 would provide doctors another tool for care and treatment, which we have learned varies depending on the nature of the illness.

While injectable cannabidiol is a wonderful treatment for certain illnesses, it is not a complete medical package. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is also the therapeutic chemical that treats glaucoma, cancer, HIV/AIDS, wasting diseases and numerous other conditions. Many of these conditions either do not have other available treatments on the market, or the available treatments have significant side effects. Failure to pass legislation that permits THC-containing treatments and all necessary forms of delivery would leave patients out in the cold. It is critical we pass legislation that allows for all medically sound uses of medical marijuana.

SR 6 puts the discussion of retail marijuana regulation and taxation on the table. We have an opportunity in Georgia to regulate sales and make available another revenue stream without raising existing taxes. Several states have approved this option, and the revenue generated is so large, tax rebates to citizens are being considered.

Legalizing and regulating marijuana also allows us to reduce the strain on our public safety system and jails. In 2010, for example, marijuana possession arrests accounted for over 65 percent of drug arrests in Georgia. There were over 32,000 arrests for marijuana possession in that year alone. Legalizing and regulating marijuana would free up law enforcement to focus on more dangerous drugs and save taxpayers money by significantly reducing the number of people in our state’s prisons and jails.

Georgians will be hearing a great deal about these issues in the coming months, and citizens deserve a full exploration and debate by their elected officials. The legislation I have authored is in no way meant to supplant other legislation; it is meant to augment the discussion. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues to advance the discussion of marijuana use and regulation and finding the best possible solution for Georgians.

State Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Norcross, serves Georgia’s 5th District, which includes parts of Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.

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