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Georgia’s Westmoreland winding down as time in Congress nears end

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.”

Marijuana’s recent electoral victories

2016 was a big year at the polls for the forces who would like to legalize marijuana.

Voters in four states – California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada – backed the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

In three other states – Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota – voters approved ballot initiatives to legalize the use of marijuana derivatives for medicinal purposes.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia now allow the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

How the law works in Georgia

Patients and, in the case of children, families who sign up on the state’s medical marijuana registry are allowed to possess up to 20 ounces of a limited form of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight specific illnesses. As of Dec. 8, 1,128 patients had registered for the program and were being treated by one of 279 registered doctors.

While they are allowed to possess marijuana for medical purposes, patients or their families must figure out how to bring the drug into Georgia because efforts have failed so far to expand the law to allow marijuana cultivation in the state.

Diseases and conditions covered by the state’s medical marijuana law:

  • Cancer, when the disease has reached end stage or the treatment produces related wasting illness, recalcitrant nausea and vomiting.
  • Seizure disorders related to diagnosis of epilepsy or trauma-related head injuries.
  • Severe or end-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
  • Severe or end-stage multiple sclerosis.
  • Severe or end-stage Parkinson’s disease.
  • Severe or end-stage sickle cell disease.
  • Crohn’s disease.
  • Mitochondrial disease.

To get more information, see the state Department of Public Health’s registry web page: www.dph.georgia.gov/low-thc-oil-registry.

How might it expand

State Rep. Allen Peake, who led the effort to pass Georgia’s medical marijuana law in 2015, has indicated that he will push during the coming legislative session for an expansion of the diseases and conditions that could be treated with marijuana.

The Republican from Macon has in the past also sought the cultivation of marijuana in Georgia so patients and families would not have to go outside the state to obtain the drug, placing them in peril of arrest on charges of violating a federal ban on interstate transport of any form of marijuana.

Efforts to do both of these things failed in this year’s legislative session.

Obstacles

Gov. Nathan Deal remains opposed to allowing cultivation of marijuana in Georgia.

Some officials have said that there need to be changes in federal law before any expansion of Georgia’s medical marijuana laws can take place.

Marijuana is currently designated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I drug, putting it on a list of the most dangerous class of drugs, which includes heroin, LSD, mescaline and quaaludes.

Medical marijuana also could face additional problems at the federal level with the appointment of Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general.


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