State lawmakers, local law enforcement and medical cannabis patients are anxiously waiting on a decision from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration on whether to reschedule marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act, a move that could open the door to new research on the drug.
In a memo released this week, DEA officials said they plan to make a decision by July.
Growing scientific evidence, shifting public opinion and changing state laws regarding both medical and recreational use of marijuana have been cited as prompting the review.
Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin, a classification that does not recognize any legitimate medical use. Prescription painkillers, which have killed more than 165,000 Americans since 1999 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are less regulated.
State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, has supported efforts in Georgia to expand a cannabis oil law passed in 2015 that allows qualified patients to use the drug to treat eight medical conditions, including seizures and cancer. Conditions like autism and post-traumatic stress disorder, however, are not covered.
“If we can help just a few percent of people here in Georgia, then it’s a plus for everybody,” Dunahoo said. “I think (the government is) finally opening up to where they’re seeing that we need to have the opportunity to look into this a little bit more instead of being scared.”
Cannabis oil, which is derived from the marijuana bud, is known to have anti-anxiety effects, among other beneficial properties, and strains lack the levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC that gets smokers intoxicated.
The American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have called for rescheduling the drug to conduct more research on its medicinal value.
The federal government does allow a University of Mississippi program to research the drug, but it remains very limited in scope.
“One of the things we heard when we first started was ‘this is a slippery slope,’” Dunahoo said. “My question is, do we allow these kids that have seizures to stay doped up on (pharmaceuticals) instead?”
With no manufacturing and distribution of cannabis oil allowed within Georgia, some patients have been forced to break federal law by acquiring the drug out of state and transporting it back.
Katie Harrison, a Hall County resident who treats her young son with cannabis oil to treat his seizure disorders, said the DEA’s review is a welcome development, but she remains skeptical about its potential to lead to in-state cultivation of the drug.
“It would be great and a tremendous help for our efforts in Georgia, but the DEA declined to (reschedule marijuana) the last two times they looked into it, so we are cautiously optimistic,” Harrison said.
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said that if the DEA reschedules marijuana, he hopes it would lead to decriminalizing the possession, cultivation and transport of cannabis oil for medical use nationwide, freeing Georgia patients from the threat of criminal charges.
“That’s the problem we have now,” Hawkins said.
But criminal penalties will likely remain nevertheless.
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he has not supported expanding state law to allow for manufacturing and distribution of cannabis oil in Georgia out of concern that could contribute to an increase in recreational marijuana use.
That’s a lament shared by local law enforcement.
“I think any decision made by the federal authorities to reduce the legal threat posed by marijuana at some point will impact the state of Georgia,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. “The critical issue at hand is finding the delicate balance between the potential benefits of medical marijuana oil and the potential for widescale abuse if marijuana laws are relaxed. How do you make medical marijuana oil readily obtainable while protecting against those who will twist that same access for both financial gain and abuse?”
Couch said he is worried about the commercialization of marijuana use like what has developed in Colorado, and other states where the drug has been legalized, and the potential for substance abuse, particularly among minors.
Miller said there is lots of speculation about what it might mean for federal drug laws and research opportunities if the DEA reschedules marijuana, and that a conservative, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach is warranted.
But he’s open to the possibility of capitalizing on the chance to learn more about the effectiveness of cannabis oil in treating legitimate medical conditions.
For Dunahoo, the debate must take into account how public opinion is moving in support of relaxing marijuana prohibition, particularly when compared with drugs.
“Alcohol is legal,” he said. “And there are so many bad things about alcohol.”