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Georgia legislature: Advocates celebrate cannabis oil, HOPE victories
'Nuisance farm' complaint bill dies in Senate on last day
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Georgia lawmakers passed a landmark bill in the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session this week that will license growers, manufacturers and dispensaries for cannabis oil. - photo by Scott Rogers

Editor’s note: All bills that passed the Georgia House and Senate must still be signed by Gov. Brian Kemp to become law. A bill also becomes law if the governor chooses not to sign it but does not veto it. 

In the flurry of late-night activity Tuesday, some measures passed the General Assembly while others won’t reach the governor’s desk this year. Here’s a look at the fate of more key bills from the final day of Georgia’s legislative session:

Medical Cannabis

Georgia families who use medical cannabis oil to treat everything from seizures to post-traumatic stress disorder are celebrating a last-minute victory that will open access to the drug in the state for the first time.

Georgia lawmakers passed a landmark bill in the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session this week that will license growers, manufacturers and dispensaries for the drug.

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Gainesville's Katie Harrison treats son Hawk, 6, with cannabis oil for seizures. The General Assembly passed a measure that should increase access to the oil by allowing it to be manufactured in Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers

The push for cultivation and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes dates to 2015 when state lawmakers first legalized low THC oil (derived from the plant/flower) for use to treat eight medical conditions: seizures, cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, mitochondrial disease and sickle cell disease. The drug is known for anti-anxiety effects, among other beneficial properties, and other conditions have been added to the list over the last four years.

As of July 2018, Georgia’s low THC oil registry includes 646 physicians and 5,425 patients.

A legislative Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access convened a number of meetings in 2018 to explore how to open access in Georgia to the drug for patients and made similar recommendations to what were adopted by the legislature.

As many as six licenses can be given to private firms to grow and manufacture low THC cannabis oil with an oversight board in place to review applications and an office to regulate the program within the state Department of Public Health.

Additionally, pharmacies can be licensed to sell the drug while retail dispensaries could follow if approved by the oversight board.

The bill also includes a ban on vaping use of cannabis oil.

Katie Harrison, a Hall County resident whose son, Hawk, experiences seizures resulting from a brain hemorrhage when he was just 3 weeks old, told The Times that the “mommy lobby and dadvocates” along with “true legislators” should be thanked.

“After five years of incredible effort … I’m so proud to say I live in the 34th state to adopt a medical cannabis program,” Harrison said. “Is (the bill) perfect? Heck no! We still have limits in the way of THC levels, delivery methods, and the diagnosis allowed (to be treated), but the progress made this year will provide access to countless patients that can’t wait for the perfect bill. Hawk and I will continue to support efforts to further free this miracle medical plant called cannabis.”

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Since the Georgia HOPE scholarship program began 25 years ago, 1.8 million students have been served by the scholarship and grant program funded entirely by revenue from the Georgia Lottery. - photo by Scott Rogers

State lawmakers have approved an extension to the length of time that students may utilize the HOPE Scholarship after graduating high school.

If signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, the change to 10 years from 7 years would apply to “those students receiving a HOPE scholarship for the first time on or after July 1, 2019,” according to the bill.

The Georgia Budget & policy Institute reports that “students over age 25 account for 17 percent of university system students and 44 percent of technical college associate’s degree students. About 57 percent of freshmen will graduate with their bachelors within six years.”

The HOPE extension could also support the 22 percent of Georgia high school graduates who start working immediately after finishing high school, the GBPI reports.

Meanwhile, efforts to limit ninth- and tenth-graders from dual enrollment courses was tabled by the Senate without a vote after passing the House in early March.

More than 35,000 students in Georgia took dual enrollment courses in 2017.

There are currently 603 students in dual enrollment in eight Hall County Schools, but just 47 in ninth and 10th grades.

Gainesville High has 214 students taking dual enrollment courses.

There were provisions in the bill that would restrict ninth-graders from participating in dual enrollment with technical schools, and also drop 10th-graders from dual enrollment at liberal arts colleges and universities.

Anything more would have to be paid for out of pocket or as a deduction on HOPE scholarship funding.

Caps on the number of ninth- and 10th-grade students in the program are preferable to eliminating enrollment from freshman and sophomore classes altogether, Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield told The Times last month.

State lawmakers from Hall County said they supported the changes because of growing costs as dual enrollment program participation has doubled across Georgia in the last three years.

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The Hall County Division of Family and Children Services. - photo by Scott Rogers
Foster Care

Georgia lawmakers have passed a trimmed version of a bill that aims to limit the amount of time the state is required to spend seeking a relative or family friend with whom to place a foster child.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, told The Times last month that he believes the bill will create more stability for foster children.

Hall County has nearly 400 children in foster care currently, up from about 200 in 2015.

Changes to the original bill include a continuing duty by DFCS to find relatives “until such relatives or persons are found or until such child is placed for adoption unless the court excuses DFCS from conducting a diligent search.”

According to the bill, “If a relative … fails, within six months from the date he or she receives the required notice, to demonstrate an interest in and willingness to provide a permanent home for a child, the court may excuse DFCS from considering such relative as a placement."

Reunification with family remains a first and main goal for DFCS and the juvenile court system.

But a child’s safety and security are paramount and the law shifts the onus of responsibility for seeking custody of a foster child onto the family or relatives while precedence is then given to keeping that child with his or her foster parents.

According to the bill, “If the court finds that the child has been living in a stable home environment with his or her current caregivers for the past 12 months and that removal of the child from such caregivers would be detrimental to the child's emotional well-being, the court may presume that continuation of the child's placement with his or her current caregivers is in the child's best interests and shall enter a finding that a change of placement is a failure by DFCS to make reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency plan which is in effect at the time of the hearing.”

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Cows graze at the Truelove farm in Clermont on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. A bill that passed the state House attempted to limit lawsuits from neighbors of farms, who complain of foul smells, grating noises and industrial lighting. The bill died in the Senate. - photo by Austin Steele

A bill that passed the state House earlier this month that sought to limit “frivolous” nuisance complaints against farmers and agricultural businesses failed to get a vote in the Senate before the General Assembly closed its business Tuesday.

As The Times reported last month, the bill has its roots in a series of North Carolina lawsuits against a large hog farming operator.

Proponents, including all state lawmakers from Hall County, the Georgia Poultry Federation in Gainesville and the Georgia Farm Bureau, said the bill clarified language to protect farms and agricultural operators doing business before neighboring commercial and residential developments were established. They say a one-year statute to file nuisance claims remains the standard.

The bill also included provisions to limit complaints when there is an expansion of physical agricultural facilities; adoption of new technology; change in size of an operation or facility; and change in the type of agricultural operation.

Opponents argued that current law, which classifies Georgia as a “right to farm” state, is sufficient to prevent prohibitive lawsuits.

However, environmental groups such as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Georgia Water Coalition, said the bill could give broad protections to farmers against nuisance complaints when the agricultural use has “come into the community.”