ATLANTA - A bill to enable a type of medical marijuana to be used in Georgia under certain circumstances passed a key committee vote Wednesday, keeping it alive as a major legislative deadline looms.
Sponsored by Republican Rep. Allen Peake of Macon, House Bill 885 would revive a long-dormant research program allowing academic institutions to distribute marijuana to patients suffering from specific medical conditions.
The House Health and Human Services Committee passed the bill by a voice vote during Wednesday's meeting, prompting hugs and tears from families in the audience whose children suffer from medical conditions that can cause multiple daily seizures. The families believe, based on anecdotal evidence seen elsewhere, that a form of cannabis oil could reduce the seizures and improve their children's quality of life and have been lobbying lawmakers to support the effort.
The bill still has to be placed on the House calendar for a floor vote, which must happen Monday or it would no longer be active for this year's legislative session.
Peake presented a revised bill at the committee, saying he needed to address the fact that federal guidelines currently prohibit transporting cannabis across state lines. The bill would now permit approved academic medical centers in the state to grow, process and distribute medical cannabis, although significant challenges remain including the potential loss of federal funding if an academic institution elects to participate in research involving a drug not approved by the Federal Drug Administration.
"I am an optimist, and I do believe that as states like Georgia lead the way it will put some pressure on the federal level to make some changes," Peake told the committee. "And it would be prudent for us to be ready for when those changes happen."
The drug would be administered orally in a liquid form, and Peake has been adamant it would not open the door to recreational use of marijuana in the state. He has said cannabis oil is low in THC, the active ingredient that produces the marijuana high.
Some committee members raised concerns the bill would provide false hope to families, although it ultimately passed without opposition.
"I know your intentions are the best in the world," state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, told Peake. "But I am having a problem with raising parents' expectations that we are going to get them something very quickly when it looks like we may not have the ability to do that. As long as you are honest about it, that it may not come quickly."
The bill defines the academic medical centers as a research hospital that operates a doctor residency program and conducts research, including medical schools within the state that conduct clinical research. Peake said those would include such universities as Georgia Regents, Emory and Mercer.
"We need to do a little more research and that's why this is just the second step in the journey," Peake told reporters after the hearing. "If we need to do some tweaking we will do that."
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. The Georgia bill has quickly gained momentum considering it was not even an issue on the legislative agenda heading into the session. When Peake introduced the bill late last month, more than 80 lawmakers signed on as sponsors including a number who serve in House leadership positions.
Peake serves as secretary-treasurer for the House Majority Caucus.
The bill, known as "Haleigh's Hope Act," is named after Haleigh Cox, a young girl who suffers from a medical condition that causes severe seizures. Peake has said he was spurred to draft the bill after meeting with her and her parents. And the bill has gained momentum in large part as families petitioned lawmakers to support the bill.
"It means the world that they would open their hearts and hear our stories and the compassionate side of it, and let us make the choice as parents," said Corey Lowe, a former police officer whose 12-year-old daughter Victoria was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease and can have up to 100 seizures a day if not controlled. "It's hope, that's all it is. Hope, that's what we're fighting for."
A state law passed in 1980 established the academic research program allowing for the limited use of medical marijuana for those diagnosed with glaucoma and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, but the program soon ceased when the federal government stopped delivery of legal cannabis, according to a legislative research memo.
The proposed bill would add seizures to the list of medical conditions allowed in the program, and Peake had said previously the cannabis oil being distributed would be "limited in scope, tightly restricted, well regulated and managed by doctors."
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