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Tom Crawford: Georgias big political changes stir emotions
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It was a joyous and emotional day when Gov. Nathan Deal signed historic legislation that legalized the possession and use of medical marijuana in Georgia.

Dozens of parents brought their kids to the state Capitol for the bill-signing ceremony. These are people who have struggled for years to deal with the crippling seizure disorders that afflict their offspring. Some of these children may finally get relief from their pain through the use of the newly legal marijuana derivatives.

It was one of those occasions when legislators from both parties could stand up and take credit for doing something that can really help people from across the state.

There were Republican lawmakers like Allen Peake, the bill’s sponsor, along with Butch Miller, Micah Gravley, Terry Rogers, Trey Kelley, Scot Turner, Greg Kirk and Bert Reeves. The Democratic side was represented by Patty Bentley, Margaret Kaiser, Gloria Frazier and Horacena Tate, who noted one of the ailments to be treated by medical marijuana is sickle cell disease.

Deal was caught up in the emotion of the moment as well, his voice breaking as he tried to sum up his personal feelings.

“I hope the message that goes out is that Georgia is a sympathetic state for these families seeking treatments,” Deal said. “I’m pleased that today we have made a difference.”

The signing of the medical marijuana bill is great news for the families who could benefit from the legalization. It is also another reminder of how fast the state is changing — faster than many people realize.

This is a conservative state that has usually been among the last to acknowledge political shifts on such major issues as racial desegregation and civil rights. You would have expected it to be one of the laggards in legalizing controlled substances.

However, Georgia has now become the 24th state to approve medical marijuana, which puts it ahead of more than half of the states.

Other changes could be just over the horizon. In the last few days of the General Assembly session, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, introduced legislation that could open the door to legalized casino gambling.

If Stephens is able to move that issue as quickly as the medical marijuana issue was advanced, Georgians could be voting in 2016 or 2018 on a constitutional amendment to legalize casinos.

A couple of weeks before Deal signed the marijuana bill, another reminder of how quickly Georgia is changing was provided by the Pew Research Center.

Pew released a report about the growing number of U.S. counties where the percentage of white residents has dropped beneath the 50 percent level and the majority of the population is made up of blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities. The report said there were 78 counties with a population exceeding 10,000 that became majority-minority in the period between 2000 and 2013.

Georgia’s demographics have been moving in the same direction as more of its counties become majority-minority, but it is still surprising to realize how fast that change is taking place.

During the 13-year span from 2000 to 2013, five of the state’s most populous counties flipped from being majority-white to being majority-minority, according to the Pew report.

On Pew’s national list of 78 majority-minority counties, four of the top five counties with the largest percentage swing in population are from Georgia: Rockdale, Henry, Douglas and Gwinnett counties.

The contrast in the numbers is startling. Rockdale County was 72.8 percent white in 2000, but by 2013 whites comprised just 37.8 percent of its population. Henry County dropped from 80.1 percent white in 2000 to 49.8 percent white. Douglas County plummeted from 76 percent white to 46.2 percent white in the space of 13 years. Gwinnett County’s population went from 67 percent white to 41.6 percent white.

The conventional wisdom among political analysts has been Georgia’s increasingly diverse population would at some point result in an election advantage for the Democratic Party, but so far that hasn’t happened. Republicans still hold firm control over the levers of statewide political power.

Even so, major changes have come to Georgia and more changes are on the way. It’s difficult to project exactly how these changes will play out, but they will probably happen much faster than you’d expect.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.

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