By Mark Niesse
Medical marijuana sales are coming to Georgia eventually, but a bill that lawmakers passed late Tuesday contains substantial hurdles before the state's 8,400 registered patients can buy the drug.
The General Assembly approved a unique distribution system that could force patients to wait months or years before they're legally able to obtain medical marijuana oil here.
Six private companies can grow medical marijuana, but no dispensaries will be allowed until a state board licenses them. Pharmacies can provide medical marijuana oil to patients, but few pharmacies are likely to participate because doing so could jeopardize their federal permission to sell other drugs. And two proposed university-run marijuana programs will be dependent on federal approvals.
Until now, Georgia's government hasn't provided a way for registered patients to buy medical marijuana oil even though it's been legal for them to use since 2015. State law prohibits buying, selling or transporting the oil.
That might change under House Bill 324, which includes several potential methods for patients to access medical marijuana oil. The bill is now awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp's signature or veto.
Parents who give the oil to their children said they're optimistic that they could finally have a reliable and safe way to buy the drug. They currently obtain the drug through the mail, by driving to other states or from friends.
"I've been getting it however I can for the last three years," said Julie Doran, a Hoschton resident who uses medical marijuana oil to treat her 8-year-old son's epilepsy and autism. "To be able to access it safely and be able to get it to him without having to worry, that would be great."
The bill was stalled until Kemp helped broker a deal that attempted to strike a balance between providing access for patients and appeasing concerns that marijuana distribution promotes illegal drug use.
Sheriffs opposed the bill because they said it could lead to large-scale marijuana production, exceeding the needs of the state's existing 8,400 patients. The number of registered patients will likely grow if they have a way to obtain the drug, state legislators said.
"Cultivation on any scale is a decisive step toward legalization for recreational purposes," said Terry Norris, the executive director for the Georgia Sheriffs' Association. "The amount of oil cultivation needs to be severely limited."
Georgia's medical marijuana program allows registered patients to use marijuana with up to 5 percent THC, the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. The legislation prohibits smoking or vaping medical marijuana oil.
So far, 33 other states have medical marijuana programs, said John Hudak, a researcher who studies cannabis policy for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy organization. Ten states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Georgia's attempt to provide medical marijuana oil through pharmacies, universities or other states probably won't work, Hudak said.
"It's going to be a more drawn-out process for sure," Hudak said. "It's going to take a little bit longer than what I think legislators' ideal would have been. It's going to be a system where they find bumps along the way."
States that have succeeded in providing access to medical marijuana have created more expansive distribution programs with multiple growers and dispensaries, said Karmen Hanson, a cannabis policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The limited program adopted for Georgia could face challenges getting off the ground until the government provides a clear way to buy medical marijuana, she said.
"It may be on the books, but is anybody able to make the system work?" Hanson asked. "It's kind of like saying you're allowed to go to the moon, but good luck getting there. It's all so complicated."
Still, patients said the Georgia bill is a step in the right direction, though access to medical marijuana oil might only come from private companies when the state allows them to sell it.
The legislation creates the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, which will be able to develop rules and regulations for retail locations before issuing dispensing licenses. The seven-member commission will be appointed by Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston.
"This bill definitely will help get medicine into the hands of patients," said Shannon Cloud, a Smyrna resident whose 13-year-old takes medical marijuana oil to treat seizures. "It's really important to us as patients that we have private companies coming and doing this because they have the experience."
Kemp is likely to sign the bill, but he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he's conflicted.
"It's a very, very tough issue. But there's a lot of legislative support for it. I respect the legislative process, and I understand why people are doing it, and I understand why people have grave concerns about this," Kemp said. "I have all of those feelings. It's a really tough spot."
(c)2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)