Georgia Cannabis: Three Years of Trials and Tribulations

The reddest of the red states embrace medical cannabis in a big way. For example, Oklahoma citizens surprised the rest of the nation by passing an all-conditions-included medical cannabis bill. Indeed, many other southern states are emphatically stating that medical cannabis just makes sense, and voters are showing up at the voting booths to show their support.

Georgia’s three-year march to medical cannabis represents an interesting microcosm of the trials and tribulations that southern and more conservative states have wrestled with as they legalize cannabis.

In Georgia, the timeline began in April 2015, when the state House introduced  House Bill 1, also known as “Haleigh’s Hope Act.” The bill’s namesake is Georgia resident Haleigh Cox, who suffers 100 seizures per day caused by a rare, intractable form of epilepsy. Her parents saw great success with administering cannabis oil treatment. Haleigh soon became the face of HB1, and her story convinced many state lawmakers to vote for the legislation, in particular, to allow doctors to treat pediatric patients under the new law.

HB1 morphed into Georgia’s first-ever medical marijuana law, signed by Governor Nathan Deal. The law was very restrictive. Georgia followed the lead of other states like Texas by only allowing low THC/high CBD cannabis oil for very specific reasons. The maximum allowable level of THC was set at five percent,  and no other forms of ingestion—edibles, smoking or vaping—were allowed.

Under the law, registered patients and their caregivers can possess up to 20 fluid ounces of the oil with a recommendation from a licensed physician. Initially, the state approved only eight qualified medical disorders: seizures, cancer, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, mitochondrial disease, and sickle cell anemia.

The law also allows universities in Georgia to perform CBD research on seizures, albeit in compliance with federal regulations regarding cannabis research. Nevertheless, it represented a step forward.

Many described Georgia’s original law in 2015 as a limited medical marijuana bill because it restricted qualifying diseases and delivery methods. The law also did not allow in-state cultivation, meaning patients who qualified for using CBD oil had to go to other states to obtain it. Republican state legislator Allen Peake became famous as a smuggler of sorts, admitting to breaking Georgia law to bring medical cannabis into the state for patients who desperately needed it.

Although many groups pushed for the in-state cultivation of cannabis, the Governor once again gave an emphatic “no” in December 2015.

A two-year period then ensued with various entities trying to expand the qualifying list of medical conditions. The state House passed HB 65, sponsored by Peake to double the number of allowed medical conditions from eight to 16. The State Senate also had its own form of the bill, SB 16, and the Governor eventually signed a compromise bill that combined HB 65 and SB 16 in May 2017. With that law, CBD oil was made available to hospice care patients, and people with autism, AIDS, Tourette’s Syndrome, severe peripheral neuropathy, and epidermolysis bullosa.

Atlanta made national headlines in October 2017 when the city decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. City Councilman Kwanza Hall sponsored the measure to reform the city’s “racist marijuana laws”; Hall stated that the large majority (92 percent) of those arrested for small possessions were black people.

The new law was unanimously passed by the city council and wholly supported by the Atlanta Police Department. Under the new law, violators carrying one ounce or less are fined $75 with no jail time, compared to the old law, which imposed a $1,000 fine and possibly six months of jail time. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed signed the legislation in November.

Fast forward to 2018, when in March, the city of Savannah followed Atlanta’s lead to become the second city in the state to decriminalize cannabis. In Savannah, first-time offenders are charged with a misdemeanor and $150 fine instead of jail time, and twenty-percent of each ticket’s fine revenue is directed to a drug treatment program. First-timers who are unable to pay the fine do community service rather than jail time.

The State Senate also passed a bill to add both intractable pain and PTSD as two new eligible medical conditions; Governor Deal signed the law in May 2018. For Georgia, it has been an interesting road. The state joins many other in the union, most of which poll as being anywhere from 60 to 90 percent in favor of legalized medical cannabis. Regardless of politics or geography, folks say it is just common sense.

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