ATLANTA -- A Senate panel Wednesday unanimously approved a newly revised bill that would legalize marijuana derivatives in Georgia for treatment of patients with cancer, glaucoma and seizure disorders.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee amended HB 885, the original House version of the medical marijuana bill, to make it easier for Georgians to gain access to cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a non-psychoactive derivative of marijuana.
The major change would grant immunity from prosecution in Georgia for possession of CBD oil obtained legally in a state that permits the use of medical marijuana.
Twenty states have legalized medical use of marijuana, and recently two states, Colorado and Washington, have also legalized recreational use.
The original HB 885 was sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), who championed the legislation to help children who suffer from serious seizure disorders. CBD has proved effective in reducing the number and duration of seizures, according to parents and physicians.
Under the Senate committee version of the bill, children with seizures or patients with cancer or glaucoma could use the CBD or other marijuana derivatives as soon as they were able to secure them from outside Georgia. And patients could take them directly without supervision by a Georgia physician or an academic medical center.
But there’s still a legal catch if the bill is passed. Transporting any marijuana, medical or otherwise, across state lines is a federal crime. That means Georgia parents or adult patients would risk arrest by federal authorities if caught bringing CBD from another state, such as Colorado, where the oil is manufactured. Some Georgia families already have moved to Colorado to get legal access to the oil for their ailing children.
Sen. Fran Millar (R-Atlanta) said he supports the intent of helping Georgia children with seizures, as well as cancer and glaucoma patients, but worries that the bill would condone illegal behavior.
“Let’s leave that decision to the parents,” Peake told lawmakers. “If they are willing to take the risk that a TSA agent will arrest them with a vial of oil, let’s let them make the decision.”
Parents of three children who suffer from uncontrolled seizures urged the committee to approve the legislation. Jenea Cox, mother of 4-year-old Haleigh Cox, told the lawmakers Wednesday that she would be moving to Colorado on Thursday to get the oil for her daughter, who suffers as many as 200 seizures a day. “I can’t wait any longer,” she said.
Haleigh, who attended the Senate hearing, was the inspiration for Peake’s legislation, which he called Haleigh’s Hope Act.
Anthony and Sarah Caruso of Flowery Branch also brought their daughter, 5-year-old Britlyn. She suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Prior to the hearing, Sarah Caruso described the bill as “a step in the right direction.”
“Parents are being told it’s a ‘false hope,’ ” Sarah said. “We don’t consider it a false hope. This is a plan to get the medicine in the future.”
The Senate committee version of the bill was written with the help of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, whose legislative counsel, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, testified in favor of the legislation. Porter said the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had reviewed the bill’s language.
The Georgia Sheriffs Association also supports the bill.
Porter said Georgia prosecutors are not interested in depriving children or adults of medical marijuana, but simply want legislation that does not open the door to legalizing recreational marijuana.
The language in the amended bill meets that standard, Porter indicated, because it clearly defines non-smoking marijuana derivatives and exempts them from the state’s Controlled Substances Act.
The Senate version, in an apparent concession to some critics, eliminates a provision in the original House bill allowing academic medical centers to grow marijuana and manufacture the non-smoking derivatives.
The Senate committee also tacked onto the marijuana legislation a provision mandating insurance coverage for treatment of autism. A separate Senate bill on such coverage has stalled in the House.
Committee Chairwoman Renee Unterman (R-Buford) said if the committee’s version of HB 885 is passed by the full Senate, it will be renamed the “Kids Care Act.” The Senate bill will then be referred to a House-Senate Conference Committee to resolve differences with the original HB 885.
Peake told the committee there may be some pushback from the House on the Senate version. He told GHN his House colleagues may resist the autism portion of the Senate bill.