Nobody at the Capitol was talking about the legalization of marijuana this time last year, but suddenly it’s become a leading topic of discussion in the General Assembly.
Legislation is pending in the Senate, and soon will be introduced in the House, that would either create a study committee or authorize outright the use of marijuana derivatives for specific medical purposes, such as treating seizure disorders in children.
Two recent polls have shown that a majority of Georgians would support legalizing the restricted medical use of marijuana. One of the most powerful figures in the legislature, House Speaker David Ralston, says he is not opposed to at least considering the idea.
“The issue has majority support,” said Sharon Ravert of Peachtree NORML, an organization that supports legalization. “There is growing support under the Gold Dome.”
Interestingly, the push for legalization of the long-prohibited substance is not coming from lawmakers on the Democratic side of the aisle. When House and Senate Democrats held news conferences to unveil their agendas for the session, they talked a lot about jobs and economic development but made no mention of marijuana.
The impetus on the issue comes from two conservative Republicans.
Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has introduced a resolution that would create a study committee to see if state law should be amended to okay the medical uses of marijuana.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, a member of the House Republican leadership, plans to introduce a bill soon that would allow doctors to prescribe cannabis oil, a marijuana derivative, to treat seizure disorders in children.
“It wasn’t on my radar three weeks ago,” Peake said during an interview in his Capitol office. “I am an unlikely champion of this cause. I’ve never smoked marijuana, I’ve never done drugs.”
Both legislators say they were influenced by a documentary on medical marijuana called “Weed” that CNN originally aired last August. The program featured the cable news outlet’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta.
Gupta, an Atlanta neurosurgeon, apologized for his past opposition to the legalization of marijuana after doing some research and discovering that the substance had proved to be medically effective in many instances.
“It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse and there are very legitimate medical applications,” Gupta said. “In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.
“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that,” Gupta added.
“I came away from that program thinking, this is what I need to know as a person who votes on public policy,” McKoon said. “I felt we needed to get more information on this.”
Gupta’s documentary highlighted the use of marijuana derivatives to treat young children afflicted with severe seizure disorders. Peake recently visited a child who suffers from that malady and had been hospitalized at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta: 4-year-old Haleigh Cox.
“She is the same age as my granddaughter and looks just like her,” Peake said. “This thing grabbed me, this little girl grabbed me. At that moment, I knew I had to use everything I had as a legislator to bring some help to these families.”
This focus on marijuana legalization comes in the midst of national attention to the states, Colorado and Washington, that now allow the recreational use of the substance. Other states are expected to follow their lead.
It does not seem likely that such a conservative state as Georgia would venture beyond allowing the medical use of marijuana at this point.
“I don’t see the political will to do anything more than make changes to the existing law on medical marijuana,” McKoon said.
“We’re not going to have some 6-year-old smoking a joint,” Peake said. “I will fight vigorously against any recreational use of marijuana.”
Advocates of marijuana legalization point to the fiscal benefits that the state would realize.
Local governments would not have to spend tax funds on the arrest and prosecution of pot smokers. If legalized, marijuana could also become a substance that state and local governments could tax.
Those particular arguments aren’t on the table right now, however.
“This issue comes down to providing compassion and hope for our children and families,” Peake insisted.