Medical marijuana supporters see opening, obstacles to state expansion


Seven states passed marijuana initiatives on Nov. 8, which ordinarily would have injected new life into the push to expand Georgia’s tiny medical cannabis program.

But those advocates must now wonder whether the incoming Trump administration will quash their enthusiasm. While the president-elect himself has said marijuana policy should be left up to the states, his nominee for attorney general, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has been a fierce critic of the drug, which remains federally classified as a harmful and illegal substance.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the driving force behind the 2015 creation of Georgia’s limited marijuana operation, said he will ask lawmakers in 2017 to at the very least expand the number of conditions that qualify for the state’s program. His “home run” scenario is for his legislative colleagues and Gov. Nathan Deal to agree to a narrowly tailored in-state program to grow and cultivate cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Peake said more than 1,000 Georgians are now registered to legally possess cannabis oil to treat one of eight conditions that qualify for the program. The positives of the program far outweigh any negative, he said.

“The sky has not fallen,” Peake said. “We’ve not seen a significant uptick of people driving while intoxicated with medical cannabis oil. It hasn’t become a public health hazard.”

It’s not just the governor who opposes expanding the program. Many prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have, too. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Duluth-based group that advocates for social conservative causes, has made blocking expansion of the program a top goal for the coming legislative session.

In 2015, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police opposed the original bill that created the state’s current medical marijuana law, calling it the “camel’s nose in the tent” toward full legalization. Many states that now allow recreational use of the drug first legalized it for medicinal purposes.

Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the police chiefs’ organization, said his board will wait to see any new legislation before taking a position. But, he said, their past concerns remain unchanged. For example, states have yet to find safe, accurate and efficient ways to test whether a motorist is under the influence of marijuana, he said.

“From a law enforcement perspective, it’s a public safety issue,” Rotondo said.

For patients already in the state program, the largest impediment, however, remains where to get the oil. While Deal and the General Assembly agreed to allow Georgians to legally possess the oil, they did not agree to allow it to be produced here.

So families and patients on the state’s medical marijuana registry must buy it and have it delivered, or they can travel to other states to buy it and risk arrest while transporting it home. Peake said he’s not aware of any Georgian who has been arrested for doing so. The oil that is available via mail is less potent than what Georgia law allows and what many patients need.

Blaine Cloud, a leading advocate for expanding Georgia’s program and the father of a child on the registry, said many families are turning to a third, more dangerous way to get the oil: cooking it themselves.

Cloud, in a letter to lawmakers, said some Georgians are buying marijuana illegally and turning it into cannabis oil in their own kitchens.

“We knew some people would have to resort to this,” he said, “but more people are doing it than we initially thought.”

Cloud vowed to return to the state Capitol in January when lawmakers convene to fight “to get actual access to the medicine we’re allowed to possess.”

Peake said he hopes to convince Deal that enough states have adopted medical marijuana laws that the risk is worth it, something he’s been unable to do the past two years.

“The issue is coming across the country,” Peake said, noting that 28 states and the District of Columbia now allow the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. “Access and cultivation in the state is coming to Georgia.”

The question, he said, is whether Deal wants to tackle it or let the next governor, elected in 2018, address it.

Jen Talaber Ryan, Deal’s communications director, said the office does not comment on pending legislation.

JJ McKay, the publisher of The Fresh Toast, a news and lifestyle website with a focus on cannabis, said 60 percent of Americans now live in a state where a form of marijuana is legal.

“Look at the people it helps,” McKay said. “Opioids is a raging national problem. Marijuana, if done correctly with the right supervision, is a better alternative and less harsh on both the system and the person.”

McKay does not believe, meanwhile, that Sessions, if he’s confirmed as attorney general, will necessarily be an impediment to expansion of marijuana laws in the states.

“Jeff Sessions is anti-marijuana,” McKay said. “But Jeff Sessions is anti many things. He has a full plate, and you’re walking into a system where it would be very difficult to overturn things in 28 states.”

Legal marijuana is a $7.1 billion industry that produces hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for states, McKay said. Florida, which voted for a medical marijuana program in November that includes the in-state cultivation Peake wants, is expected to see a $1 billion tax benefit, McKay said.

Plus, he said, President-elect Donald Trump has said marijuana policy should be left to the states.

“Will Sessions make it harder? Maybe,” McKay said. “Will he be able to overturn it? Doubtful.”


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