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Posted: February 18, 2017 1:08 p.m.

Lawmakers work on changes to medical cannabis program

ATLANTA (AP) — Sebastien Cotte swears by the power of medical marijuana.

For several years, he has been using cannabis oil to treat his son, Jagger, who has a rare and terminal neurological disorder called Leigh's disease.

The oil has allowed him to cut back on using pharmaceuticals, including opioids, to treat his son's seizures, breathing problems, and other symptoms.

"I see how it works and I want other kids to be able to have the same opportunity," said Cotte.

Cotte and others worry that differing priorities in the Georgia Legislature this year will harm the state's two-year-old program allowing possession of cannabis oil for treatment of certain medical conditions.

This week, the Senate approved a bill cutting the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, allowed in the oil to 3 percent, down from 5 percent. Senators who favored the move said it would put Georgia more in line with other states that allow medical marijuana but that use lower levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes users feel high. The bill ultimately passed with a vote of 41-12.

Cotte, who uses the 5 percent solution to treat his son, said the Senate failed to justify its decision.

"They are playing games with our kids' lives," said Cotte. "The Senate is trying to create a solution to a problem that does not exist."

Marijuana is designated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning the federal government does not recognize its accepted medical use and therefore has been difficult to study.
Across the Capitol, House members are working on legislation to allow patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, HIV, chronic pain, or autism to qualify for medical marijuana. It would also remove some restrictions on patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Allen Peake, championed the 2015 creation of the medical cannabis program, which has enrolled 1,300 people with no reported problems. Peake acknowledges the Senate is unlikely to agree to the proposal without changes and expects both chambers to wind up in negotiations before the session ends.

"The danger is that these are not just conditions written on a piece of paper, these are people's lives that we are making decisions on," he said. "To use that as negotiation is very, very dangerous."

Peake's bill also removes some residency restrictions and eases reporting requirements on prescribing physicians. It will be heard in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Tuesday.

"We should allow as many Georgians with debilitating illnesses as possible to benefit from a law that has worked," said Peake.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who leads the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said lawmakers will likely hammer out a compromise later in the legislative session.

"This is typical in the process," he said.

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