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Final legislature sprint: Cannabis oil, school reform bills go to governor
Deal signs executive order to clear way for medical marijuana use
Georgia-Medical-Marij Albe-3
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signs an executive order requiring state agencies to start preparations now for the enactment of the state's medical marijuana bill Friday in Atlanta. The bill becomes law when he signs it soon after the current legislative session ends April 2. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, will allow the use of cannabis oil for treatment of certain medial conditions. - photo by David Goldman

As state lawmakers prepare for the final week of the General Assembly’s 2015 session, several high-profile bills have made their way from debate to a vote. Others, however, are tied up and may not survive.

Lawmakers plan to wrap up the 40-day session Thursday. Here is the status of several key pieces of legislation:

Medical marijuana

Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order Friday directing state agencies to prepare for the enactment of legislation that will allow the use of cannabis oil in treating eight medical conditions: cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s and sickle cell disease.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor will sign the bill after the session ends to ensure that no other pieces of conflicting legislation arise. The law will take effect immediately.

“This executive order is the first step in bringing home families who’ve sought relief elsewhere and for providing new medical solutions for Georgians suffering from debilitating conditions,” Deal said in a statement. “I’ve instructed the Georgia Composite Medical Board and the Department of Public Health to begin taking immediate steps ahead of this law’s enactment. At the same time, law enforcement, health care providers and other stakeholders should make appropriate preparations.”

Deal said it is paramount that private health information and the security of the new patient registry be ensured before proceeding.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board will draft a patient waiver and a physician certification form. Patients will then be provided with documentation allowing for possession of low-THC cannabis oil.

“Soon, families will be reunited and more Georgians will gain access to the treatment they require,” Deal said. “I’m proud to see Georgia leading in this way.”

Katie Harrison, a Gillsville resident, has been fighting to legalize cannabis oil, which has the anti-anxiety effects of marijuana without enough of the ingredient to get an individual high or intoxicated.

Her 2-year-old son, Hawk, suffers from several seizure disorders after a brain hemorrhage suffered when he was 3 weeks old.

Harrison said she got a doctor’s recommendation in California to treat her son with cannabis oil, and after a two-week trial there noticed “obvious” improvement.

Harrison said Friday that her fears about politics upending the law were waning.

“It was good that today (Deal) did come forward and publicly say something ... as a sign of good faith,” Harrison said. “We’re really happy.”

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, was the Senate sponsor of the bill.

School reform

The Senate sent the final piece of Deal’s proposal to take over schools dubbed “chronically failing” to his desk.

A constitutional amendment that will be submitted to Georgia voters in 2016 narrowly passed both the House and Senate. Senators on Friday agreed with some minor House changes to the bill which details how the state-run district would operate.

Deal’s plan, also sponsored by Miller, would allow an appointed superintendent to select up to 20 schools deemed failing each year and make them into charters, close them or overhaul management. Up to 100 schools could be included in the district.

Schools scoring less than 60 on the state’s index for measuring student performance and growth for three years would be eligible.

Most education groups have opposed the plan.

Solar power financing

A House bill allowing Georgia residents to finance solar panels the same way they borrow money for homes or lease cars passed the Senate and now awaits Deal’s signature.

Proponents of the bill said it will enable Georgians to secure third-party financing for the installation of solar panels, bringing affordable financing options to property owners.

“The legislation makes it clear that Georgia energy customers should be allowed to choose the best financing solutions the free market has to offer,” Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said in a statement. “I believe individuals and businesses can make the best decisions about their energy solutions.”

Residents buy electricity from monopoly utilities. By law, only utilities can sell electricity in their designated territories.

The Solar Power Free-Market Financing Act of 2015 permits agreements where a customer pays a nonutility based on the performance of solar panels. It doesn’t alter Georgia’s market for electricity.

Proponents said 22 other states allow such financing agreements, and even more do not directly prohibit them.

Religious freedom

A divisive religious freedom bill stalled Thursday in a House committee after a Republican member of the panel successfully added anti-discrimination language to the proposal.

Members of the Judiciary Committee voted to table the bill immediately after nine lawmakers on the panel supported the addition from Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven. Two other Republicans also voted in favor.

Supporters of the bill said the change swallows the legal protection it is intended to provide for people acting on their religious beliefs.

“This is the amendment which will gut this bill,” Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said before the vote on Jacobs’ amendment. He then urged other Republicans on the panel “not to do something which will cause several of us to have to vote ‘no.’”

Opponents of the measure from Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, have pushed for anti-discrimination language to ensure the bill could not be used as legal cover for such treatment of gays and transgender people.

Jacobs said the majority of emails he’s received from his metro Atlanta district were from people opposed to the bill.

“I take at face value the statements of the proponents that they do not intend discrimination with this bill,” Jacobs said. “I also believe if that’s the case we as the General Assembly should state that expressly in the bill.”

McKoon’s bill would forbid government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest and would cover individuals and closely held corporations. Critics say such measures are being considered in 13 states as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares for a possible ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Some Georgia business interests made their strongest negative comments yet on the bill Thursday, while other opponents pointed to Indiana companies and convention organizers warning of economic harm in that state following Gov. Mike Pence signing a similar measure.

Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association, said the issue boils down to the perception of Georgia as an “unwelcoming state” by convention site-selectors if the bill were to pass.

“Please don’t discount the importance of that perception,” he said.

The measure does have a narrow path forward. McKoon overcame a similar roadblock in a Senate committee before the chamber overwhelmingly supported the bill in a floor vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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