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See how law changes limits on cannabis oil, if you can find it
As low THC drug registry expands, access is still tough for families

When post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain are officially added today as conditions treatable by an oil made with marijuana plants, patients and their families still face an uphill battle to get their hands on it.

House Bill 65 added conditions to the low THC oil medical marijuana registry, which allows qualified people to have 20 fluid ounces of the oil that in Georgia can have no more than 5 percent THC content. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical that causes the high from marijuana use.

For pain physician Dr. Tennent Slack at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, it’s a “reasonable trade” to replace an opioid medication.

“It’s not that cannabinoids are perfect. They certainly can be habit-forming, but they are way, way safer than opioids,” he said.

Intractable pain is defined by the law as “pain that cannot be removed and other methods have been tried for at least six months without adequate results or intolerable side effects.”

A registry card costs $25 and is available for patients after approval by a physician. The patients’ or patient caregivers’ information then goes on the Department of Public Health’s registry.

The card is valid for two years and requires another physician’s consultation before updating information with the registry.

Other conditions qualifying for the registry include Crohn’s disease, seizure disorders, severe Tourette’s syndrome and end-stage or severe Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases.

Even on the Department of Public Health website, there is no clear path to purchasing low THC oil. In the “frequently asked questions” about where to buy it, DPH’s response is that the law does not “address how low THC oil is made, purchased or shipped” and that it only creates a legal protection for those who possess it.

“I’ve had numerous patients express interest, and I have to tell all of them: I can help you with this, but you’ve got to go out and identify where you can get an approved product,” Slack said. “If you identify a source, and it’s practical for you to go across the state line to get it ... I can work to getting you registered with the state and getting you a card. But there’s no point of going through that whole process if you’ve got nowhere to get it.”

The issue centers around marijuana remaining a schedule I drug under federal law and the lack of in-state production. A joint study commission was also created with House Bill 65 to study accessibility to low THC oil and identify “secure ways to ensure members of the registry are able to access it.”

Katie Harrison, a Hall County resident, must find ways to obtain cannabis oil for her 5-year-old son Hawk.

“It’s heartbreaking speaking to other parents who happen to not know somebody in a legal state or happen to not have the money or the time or the transportation to be able to go somewhere,” she said.

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Katie Harrison smiles at her son Hawk Harrison while touring their newly renovated home for the first time June 10, 2017, in Gainesville. Hawk has suffered from seizures since he was 3 weeks old, and though his mother said cannabis oil eases the symptoms, it remains hard to acquire. - photo by David Barnes
At 3 weeks old, Hawk suffered a brain hemorrhage and now suffers from seizures. His mother said he responds well to the cannabidiol that is legal to ship federally, but anything else would require going out of state to get it or finding someone willing to ship it.

Harrison said she would advocate any person who can should take full advantage of the medical marijuana laws on the books despite the imperfections.

“I feel like they throw it on the law books and go, ‘Look what we did. We’re for you. We absolutely are fighting for you.’ But then they’re just making us criminals if these people are to get access in some sort of way,” said Harrison, adding it feels “almost like a kick in the face.”

On Monday, June 25, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug derived from marijuana for the treatment of two severe forms of epilepsy.

“The pharmaceutical industry is salivating over trying to find products that will spare opioids or reduce exposure to opioids. ... Whether or not the pharmaceutical industry can produce a substance they can call a drug that would be approved for a pain indication remains the question,” Slack said.