Proposals to expand the use, cultivation and distribution of cannabis oil in Georgia are on life support as the state legislature enters its final week of action for 2016.
But families who swear by the effectiveness of the drug know what a lifesaver it can be.
A vote stalled in the Senate on House Bill 722 that would expand the number of conditions that can be treated with cannabis oil, even after plans for in-state manufacturing of the drug were scrapped.
Though a workaround is possible in the form of an unrelated Senate bill passed last year, which never got a vote in the House, medical marijuana supporters said the fight looks poised to continue in 2017.
Gov. Nathan Deal and his top floor leader, Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, have said cultivation and the addition of new diseases that can be treated with cannabis oil could open a slippery slope to legalized recreational use of marijuana in Georgia.
That’s a lament Melisa Hernandez, a Flowery Branch resident, can understand.
“I was very skeptical because of my religious beliefs,” she said.
But the risk is worth the reward in Hernandez’s mind. She began treating her 12-year-old daughter, Cierra, with cannabis oil last September after obtaining a patient registry card.
Cierra was experiencing about 500 seizures a week before her first dose of the drug, but hasn’t had a single one since, Hernandez said.
“It’s been amazing,” she added. “We’ve seen her come out of her shell.”
That includes saying “mama” for the first time, signifying a “yes” with the raise of a hand and smiling.
“Cannabis oil is the only thing we’ve changed,” Hernandez said.
Lawmakers approved the use of cannabis oil last year to treat eight medical conditions, including seizure disorders in children. The drug is known to have anti-anxiety effects, among other beneficial properties.
In the first major clinical study of its kind, GW Pharmaceuticals reported earlier this month that the median reduction in convulsive seizures in 120 patients was 39 percent after taking cannibinoids derived from marijuana versus just 13 percent in patients taking a placebo.
That is a statistically significant result that supporters hope will open the way for additional research.
Sarabeth Fowler, a Clarkesville resident, said she would have started treating her 9-year-old daughter, Ava, much sooner had she known how responsive the young girl would be to cannabis oil.
“I didn’t think we’d ever see her again,” Fowler said after receiving Ava’s epilepsy diagnosis at age 3. “I had to mourn her loss.”
But the sassy, happy girl she reminders is now back. It’s like a light switch being flipped on in a dark room.
Fowler said Ava is more social than ever, having sleepovers with friends and attending new birthday parties.
And the medical data corresponds with the cognitive awakening Ava seems to have experienced.
Fowler said her daughter recently had a 72-hour electroencephalogram, or EEG, performed and showed no seizure activity, the first time Ava has ever had a clean test result.
Now, her daughter’s dream of becoming a veterinarian seems possible, Fowler said.
Ava loves animals. On a recent afternoon, she fearlessly caressed and cared for chickens like they were babies. Her eyes and face lit up in the moment, something Fowler said is an obvious emotional change for Ava.
“I just can’t even put into words how joyous it is to have her,” Fowler said.
For Kristi Baggerly, a Cumming resident, that sense of presence in her child has also been remarkable to see.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Kendle, began using cannabis oil over a year ago to manage seizure activity and is now weaning off pharmaceutical drugs.
Kendle answers to her name now, she leans in for a goodnight kiss from her mother and “people are able to bond with her,” Baggerly said.
Thinking about how her cognition has improved drives Baggerly to happy tears.
“You put so much into your child and you wonder if they even notice who you are,” Baggerly said. “She just is here now.”