Lawmakers should pursue licensing a limited number of growers, manufacturers and dispensaries for medical cannabis oil in the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly.
Those are the breakthrough recommendations made in late December by the legislative Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access, which convened a number of meetings in 2018 to explore how to open access in Georgia to the drug for thousands of registered patients.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction,” said Katie Harrison, a Hall County resident whose son, Hawk, experiences seizures resulting from a brain hemorrhage when he was just 3 weeks old.
But now the hard work begins for families and activists, Harrison said.
Lawmakers must pass a bill, and a new governor, Republican Brian Kemp, must sign it.
“This is where the rubber hits the road,” Harrison said, adding that the commission’s recommendations give her and other families “ammunition” and “credibility.”
As of July 2018, Georgia’s low THC oil registry includes 646 physicians and 5,425 patients, according to the commission.
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.
The state expanded the number of medical conditions in 2017 to include Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, autism spectrum disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, epidermolysis bullosa and hospice care patients.
In 2018, the legislature added post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain to the approved list of medical conditions.
“The registry averages approximately 300 new patients each month and projects the number of patients to grow to approximately 10,000 by the end of the year,” the commission reports.
But access to the drug in Georgia has remained elusive for families in need. The Times has documented the stories of several Hall County families who have trouble obtaining the drug for family members approved for treatment.
And some patients and their families, such as the Harrisons, said they felt forced to break federal and state laws by acquiring the drug in places like California and Colorado, and transporting it back home.
In 2017, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, pushed for a statewide voter referendum to decide how Georgia should regulate the manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana, but it never gained enough traction to appear on the ballot.
Across Georgia, local law enforcement, including the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, opposed in-state cultivation and distribution.
They said the federal government needs to act first to reclassify and decriminalize marijuana before the state can move toward a growth and distribution model for cannabis oil.
Federal law classifies THC, the intoxicating property of marijuana, as a Schedule I drug. The commission suggests the federal government reclassify it to Schedule II, which would limit the state’s liability and create more availability for the drug.
Noting that the federal government is unlikely to act on such a recommendation, however, the commission suggests moving forward with in-state cultivation and distribution anyway.
According to the commission, 46 states allow some form of medical cannabis and 31 allow some form of in-state cultivation.
The state should offer 10 grow licenses, 10 manufacturing licenses and an adequate number of dispensing licenses, the commission recommends, with half granted to large capital investment firms and half to smaller groups.
“In doing so, the legislature must take into account the number of patients registered under the Low THC Oil Patient Registry that is administered by DPH to ensure demand drives supply and supports competition within the Georgia market,” the commission reports.
The Department of Public Health would retain oversight of the medical marijuana registry, and its budget would need additional funding, the commission suggests, to ensure “uniform product labeling and independent lab testing procedures with minimum standards for product purity and safety.”
Harrison said she uses several “brands” of cannabis oil with varying levels of THC to mitigate the intensity and frequency of Hawk’s seizures.
But 2018 “was kind of a rough year” for the young boy, now 6 years old, Harrison said.
“Finally, we got the courage to start going outside the box,” she said.
What they were using just wasn’t enough, Harrison added, and access remained difficult and costly.
Mixing things up and utilizing higher doses of THC gave Hawk two weeks without seizures, at one point, the longest single stretch Harrison said she could recall.
“That was amazing,” she added.
Harrison advocates allowing families to have access to the whole plant, not just the oil derived from it, for use in prescribed treatment.
This would give families like hers, she said, more options and more availability to explore how best to administer and utilize the drug for maximum benefit.
“If you don’t have access, you’ll never know,” Harrison said.