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Georgia Lawmakers Consider Separate Medical Cannabis Production Bills

Lawmakers in Georgia on Tuesday took action to resuscitate the state’s medical cannabis program, with the House and Senate advancing separate bills designed to allow the production and sale of medicinal cannabis oil.

The Georgia state legislature passed the Haleigh’s Hope Act, a measure that allowed patients with certain medical conditions including seizure disorders and end-stage cancer to use cannabis oil containing no more than 5 percent THC, in 2015. Patients are left without legal access to their medication because lawmakers did not pass the legislation to allow for the regulation of marijuana oil production.

2019 saw the passage of a bill that would allow medical marijuana cultivation as well as cannabis oil production. In the same year, Governor Brian Kemp and Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan appointed seven members to a commission that would draft regulations and license medicinal cannabis producers.

In 2012, Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission(GMCC), announced it was going to award six licenses to the companies chosen from a total of 70 applicants. Nearly two dozen of the unsuccessful applicants filed protests, and one prospective cannabis operator, Georgia Atlas, filed a lawsuit characterizing the state’s selection process as “lacking in transparency, objectivity and fairness.” The legal action has stalled the licensing process, leaving Georgia’s 20,000 registered medical weed patients still without access to legal cannabis oil.

Two Separate Bills Approved

Georgia legislators approved Tuesday two bills to rectify this situation. Senate Bill 609 from Senator Jeff Mullis would direct the GMCC to re-evaluate the application proposals already submitted and select the six “highest qualified applicants” to receive licenses. With a unanimous vote by 52-0, the Senate approved this legislation.

“The sole purpose of the bill is to move the ball forward on getting medical cannabis to the folks on the registry,” said state Senator Dean Burke, as quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The process, most people would say, has been flawed.”

House Bill 1425 by Representative Bill Werkheiser is a separate measure that would effectively stop the progress towards medical marijuana program licensure and allow the Department of Administrative Services to restart the application and selection process. An independent third party would grade the competitive bidding process, instead of the politically elected GMCC. It does not specify a deadline by which licenses will be issued.

“We don’t know if it’s perfect but if we don’t do anything we’re in a very bad place,” Werkheiser said. “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to get the medicine into the patients’ hands.”

House Bill 1425 will also increase the number of medical marijuana licenses, as more people register to the program.

“It grows as the number of licenses grow,” Werkheiser said. “Every 10,000 additional patients, we’ll add one more large license and small license and we’ll keep doing that.”

Lawmakers in the House passed Werkheiser’s bill on Tuesday with a vote of 169-5. Ed Setzler (State Representative) voted in support of the bill. This is despite the fact that it does not change the restrictions approved previously by the lawmakers. But he is concerned that the bill’s approval could bolster efforts to legalize recreational cannabis.

“There’s a movement behind the scenes, and it’s very soon going to be out in the open, that’s going to be monetizing this process to push for full-on what you would call medical/recreational marijuana and making Georgia a recreational state,” Setzler told his colleagues in the House. “That’s coming. The money behind this, that’s protecting these (requests for proposals), is driving this, it’s a nationwide movement, it is coming to Georgia. And they see this process as just a step in that direction.”

However, Representative Micah Gravley said that Setzler’s worries are unfounded, citing the tight regulatory controls included in the measure.

“We have not become a recreational state, we have not implemented medical smoking or anything like that,” he said. “Matter of fact, we have a very strict law, you can’t even advertise with the color green in our law. We ban edibles. You can’t even have a standalone education center in our laws for our patients seeking this, who has been recommended by their physician, who’s wanting education on this particular subject, you can’t even have a standalone Education Center.”

Georgia Patients Leave in the Lurch

House Bill 1425 is now being reviewed by the Georgia Senate. Senate Bill 609 has also been transferred to the House of Representatives. Both measures will likely face legal problems if they are approved. This is especially true if any of the six previously approved companies fail to obtain a license. It’s a situation that continues to frustrate patients and their families, including Sebastian Cotte, the father of 11-year-od Jagger Cotte, who has a rare neurological condition known as Leigh syndrome.

“He is nonverbal, never spoke in his life, he cannot hold his head up, he cannot walk, he is 100% handicapped,” Cotte told local media about his son’s disability.

Jagger was able to be treated with marijuana by the Cottes in Colorado, where they moved in 2014. Sebastian Cotte stated that Jagger made rapid progress using high-CBD and low-THC cannabis oil.

“Right away, we saw some changes,” he said, “but the one thing I will never forget– Jagger had not smiled for a year before that. After two or three days on CBD, Jagger smiled again.”

Now that cannabis oil has been legalized, both father and son have returned to Georgia. Sebastian Cotte still has to travel outside of Georgia for the medication his son requires. He hopes that Georgia’s lawmakers will soon make that unnecessary.

“We are not asking for the moon,” Cotte said. “We are asking for access like so many other states have.”