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Posted: March 1, 2014 9:29 p.m.

Breaking down medical marijuana bill

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Medical marijuana can be an emotional subject, from the parents seeking help for their children to the state representative on a mission to introduce clinical testing in Georgia.

A bill written by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, brought Georgia to the forefront of the debate about whether the cannabis plant should be used to create oil for the treatment of certain conditions – seizures in children being the most prominent – and the Georgia House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill Monday.

Peake’s bill, H.B. 885, is titled Haleigh’s Hope Act after Haleigh Cox, the 4-year-old girl in Monroe County who suffers from epilepsy and has as many as 100 seizures a day. Peake said he was struck by Haleigh’s case, because she looks just like his 3-year-old granddaughter.

“It just hit me in the gut, if Haley were my granddaughter or my daughter, I’d be moving heaven and earth to pass legislation that would give my family an option,” Peake told The News Friday.

Peake said he’s willing to lose his house seat to support his bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives’ Health and Human Services committee this week. The bill heads to the house’s Rules Committee Monday, the path all bills must take, and Peake said he’s hopeful and expectant the bill will come to the house floor for a vote Monday.

Monday is Crossover Day, the last day bills that originate in the house can be passed by the house – same rules apply to senate bills – and then either get passed over to the senate for a vote or die this session for lack of support.

Bill basics
Peake’s bill calls for the reinstatement of a long-dormant state program that’s technically allowed for years the clinical testing of cannabis to treat glaucoma and relieve symptoms from chemotherapy, including nausea and vomiting. Peake’s bill would add the treatment of seizure disorders to the program.

According to the Associated Press, citing a legislative research memo, a state law passed in 1980 established the academic research program allowing for the limited use of medical marijuana, but the program soon ceased when the federal government stopped delivery of legal cannabis.

And that’s the biggest hurdle left to be scaled, how to legally get cannabis into the state. The cannabis oil is available in Colorado, but federal law prohibits exporting any marijuana products across state lines: marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug under federal law, the most highly-regulated drugs in America.

Peake’s bill, revised this week, now would allow “at least one academic medical center to cultivate and process medical research cannabis” and to run clinical trials. Georgia has four academic medical centers: Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Mercer University in Macon and Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

However, the question is whether the universities would want to venture into the cannabis growing market, which is still technically illegal under federal law. Committee members questioned whether the universities would be willing to risk losing their federal funding by growing an illegal substance and testing a cannabis oil that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

While the oil produced in Colorado is being used and has been well-publicized – dubbed Charlotte’s Web – the FDA has technically not approved its use in clinical trials. The drug, Epidiolex, produced by London-based GW Pharmaceuticals is the only cannabis oil approved by the FDA and a handful of clinical trials are starting up around the U.S.

Peake said there were two other options:
Federal regulations could be relaxed in this area as the medical cannabis movement gains steam, in which case Peake said he “wants to make sure (Georgia) has a framework ready.”
The University of Mississippi is the only facility officially allowed by the federal government to grow marijuana for medical research, and Georgia’s academic research centers could apply to get that marijuana through the National Institute on Drug Abuse. However, the university isn’t growing any marijuana currently, though Peake said public pressure is growing for it to start planting.
Asked for comment, Emory University released an official statement, “Emory is closely following this legislation, and we will revisit the issue pending passage of the bill in both houses, final language and the Governor’s signature.”
Peake said he’s had conversations with all four medical centers, but he said all four are hesitant to say how involved they want to be until the bill becomes state law.

Local legislators’ takes
Local representatives were split on the issue.

Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, who sits on the Health and Human Services committee, said he has an open mind, but still needs questions to be answered before deciding how to vote on the potentially controversial issue.
Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, said she doesn’t agree with marijuana being grown in Georgia at this point, and she can’t see academic medical centers agreeing to grow it, anyway. She said she understands the desire to help patients who are suffering, and supports limiting use to clinical trials under strict physician’s control, but she’s unsure of how she’ll vote.

Rep. Dale Rutledge, R-McDonough, said “Tightly controlled medical research only should be allowed to determine if it is an effective alternative to treat seizures,” and said he supports the current version of the bill.

He said and Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, would like to see a sunset provision added.

“Three to five years should be plenty of time to collect data. We also want to make sure no tax dollars will fund the research,” Rutledge said in an email, speaking for himself and Jeffares. “Research universities that are selected/approved need to use private grants or funds in their current research budgets, not new appropriations.”

To read the accompanying profile of a Covington family with multiple children who suffer from seizures and are advocating for medical cannabis, click here.

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