ATLANTA — While an effort to bring a form of medical marijuana to Georgia garnered bipartisan support during the most recent legislative session, hurdles remain as lawmakers prepare to make another attempt at passing the legislation next year. A bill is being drafted after a series of committee hearings and included testimony from leaders within the law enforcement and medical communities who raised concerns about the use of medical cannabis even under narrow circumstances. Meanwhile, progress is being made in terms of bringing clinical trials to Georgia, but advocates warn that will not be enough to help all those who see the drug as their best hope to manage debilitating conditions.
"I don't think any of us are opposed to finding out how effective it is or how it works, but let's have compassionate use with it as well," said Bob Kutchback, whose young granddaughter suffers from a rare disorder that causes severe seizures.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, took the lead earlier this year in fighting to allow the use of cannabidiol, a marijuana derivative low in the psychoactive compound that makes users feel high, by children suffering from certain seizure disorders. His bill ultimately failed amid some last-minute maneuvering on unrelated legislation.
Peake said recently he expects to have a draft bill soon and it will allow for a limited number of businesses to obtain a state license to grow and process marijuana for the sole purpose of providing the cannabis oil under a system in which people of all ages with certain medical conditions would be able to obtain it under the supervision of a doctor. The amount of the psychoactive compound known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, would be limited and facilities would be subject to regulations, lab testing and security measures.
"I feel very confident that my colleagues want to move forward with a public policy that provides a very tightly restricted, very regulated delivery system for cannabis oil in Georgia," Peake said, adding he's aware of 15 families who have left Georgia for Colorado and other states for access to the cannabis oil and three children have died while lawmakers have been debating the issue. "We can't move fast enough."
Law enforcement's top concerns include security at the facilities and specific civil and criminal penalties for violators. The Georgia Sheriffs' Association also indicated they would oppose a bill if law enforcement agencies weren't granted warrantless access to the facilities for monitoring. Association President, Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin, said members worry the bill could send mixed messages to the public.
"We want to be there to help," Griffin said at an Oct. 1 hearing. "That is our job to help people, but we are also very, very concerned about the perception that this bill would lead to people thinking you could smoke marijuana for medical purposes."
Peake said he feels confident the bill will address those concerns. Much more difficult might be confronting concerns of some in the medical community who first want to see the results of various clinical trials underway nationally and soon in Georgia. Dr. Cynthia Wetmore, director for clinical and translational research at Children's Health Care of Atlanta, advised lawmakers to be cautious.
"To give something as powerful as cannabidiol oil really needs to be done initially within the confines of a clinical trial so there are medical professionals able to help these children monitor liver function, monitor their psychiatric outlook so we are able to do it safely," Wetmore said at a Nov. 12 hearing. "I would only do it within the realm of a clinical study until it's proven safe."
When lawmakers were unable to pass legislation, Gov. Nathan Deal brokered a partnership between Georgia Regents University and a British company that allows for the state to have its own clinical trial. University officials say they have some of the federal approvals needed to move forward and hope to begin accepting patients soon. Officials said the cost of the trial could reach $8 million, which would need to be allocated by lawmakers next year with the governor's approval.
Shannon Cloud, whose daughter suffers from severe seizures, said she wasn't sure her daughter would even qualify for the trials because of restrictions on the number of children, age and frequency of seizures.
"We hope they decide to open it up to more people than that because the clinical trials take such a long time and it would be really unfortunate for people, not just kids but adults too who are suffering, to have to wait for a trial when we know it works," Cloud said.
The Sun Herald/Nov. 16, 2014