The production and sale of low-potency medical marijuana oil could soon be allowed in Georgia under a bill passed March 5 by the House.
Lawmakers voted 123-40 to clear the measure, House Bill 324, two days ahead of a legislative deadline that generally requires bills to pass at least one House by Thursday to survive. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Hall County Reps. Matt Dubnik, Emory Dunahoo and Lee Hawkins voted yes. Rep. Timothy Barr did not vote.
In recent years, laws have been created to allow Georgians to possess low-potency medical marijuana oil and to expand the diagnoses that make them eligible to use the drug. But it remains illegal to grow, process, buy, sell or transport the substance in Georgia.
The bill would close this loophole that allows patients to possess the drug, but provides no real way to obtain it. It grants access to Georgians who are already state-registered as needing the oil.
Current state law allows individuals with 16 specific conditions, including cancer, seizure disorders and Parkinson's disease, to possess the substance.
"These aren't people who are seeking to use illicit drugs. These are people who have tried and failed with opioids," said the bill's main supporter, Republican Rep. Micah Gravley of Douglasville. "These are people who simply want their children to experience less seizures, a loved one to be eased in the pain of cancer, maybe a relative, a mom or a dad with Parkinson's, to enjoy a cup of coffee without shaking or not being able to hold a cup."
Critics of the measure fear that legalizing medical marijuana may lead to a slippery slope of legalizing recreational use. Nonetheless, Gravley has urged fellow lawmakers that this would not be the case.
Gravley has said his bill would help the roughly 8,400 Georgians who are already registered to use low-potency medical marijuana. He suspects the actual number of people who may be impacted may be "upwards of 15,000." He said many people may not have applied for a Low THC Oil Registry Card in the absence of a safe, legal way to obtain the oil.
Gravley hopes his measure would provide relief to families who feel forced to break the law just to get medicine for their loved ones.
The bill would grant 10 licenses to grow and manufacture the drug in Georgia, and could create as many as 50 retail locations. It also would create an 11-member oversight board to review licensing applications and an office to regulate the program within the Department of Public Health.
Gravley said the entire regulation process would "track all plants and products from seed to sale." He explained that there would be restrictions on who could enter retail dispensaries, requirements to disclose ingredients of the oil to buyers and third-party testing for safety and efficacy.
It also would explicitly ban use of the drug for vaping purposes.
One amendment added during the committee process requires the oversight board include at least two minority business owners in Georgia.
During Tuesday's floor debate, some lawmakers raised concerns that the bill may be better regulated if it were distributed through pharmacies, instead of retail sites.
"Having pharmacies involved would help to regulate this even tighter than it currently is under the bill," said Republican Rep. Andy Welch from McDonough. He still recommended lawmakers vote for the measure.
Gravley said his bill still had stringent regulations but that he is still in talks with the Georgia Pharmacy Association to see how to work together going forward.
Several lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Mark Newton of Augusta, expressed support for their bill.
"Is it a miracle medicine? No. It is not a panacea. It is not an answer for everything," said Newton, founder and CEO of Med Now Urgent Care Centers, with locations throughout Augusta and Columbia County. "But in the right, controlled circumstances — similar to opioids when you have a femur fracture — in the right circumstances, it's a very valuable medicine."