When State Representative Allen Peake was first asked about medical marijuana by a reporter in January 2014, his response was swift and dismissive.
"I said ‘absolutely not¬-- there's no way; there's no appetite for that; there's no indication at all that the Georgia General Assembly is even interested in talking about medical marijuana'."
Nearly a year later, Peake has happily been proven wrong, with House Bill 1, also known as the Haleigh's Hope Act, on track to be passed into law, making medicinal cannabis oil legal in Georgia.
Peake was cautiously optimistic during an event on Monday in downtown Covington where he gave a detailed outline of the proposed legislation, which will be the first bill debated when the new legislative session opens on January 12, and fielded questions from among several dozen audience members.
The legislation is intended to provide relief to thousands of Georgians suffering from conditions that have been successfully treated with cannabis oil. In particular, Peake said his priority is to bring home at least 17 Georgia families that have been forced to relocate to Colorado and other states where medical marijuana treatments are legal.
These families include the Coxs of Macon, Peake's home district, whose daughter, Haleigh Cox, was the inspiration for the bill, as well as the Hopkins, a local Covington family that recently moved to Boulder for their daughter Michala.
"We shouldn't be putting obstacles in front of these families; we should be helping them," said Peake, adding that each of the families he is in contact with have seen an improvement in their loved one's condition, sometimes dramatic, with cannabis oil.
In fact, he said, Haleigh, who used to suffer from 100 to 200 seizures a day, recently experienced an entire week without a single seizure.
Peake explained that the bill would go into effect in two phases. The first would protect from prosecution those individuals who legally bought cannabis oil in another state and transported it back to Georgia, although the transport of cannabis substances over state lines is still illegal under federal law.
The second part of the bill would create a regulatory system for the production, processing and sale of cannabis extract for ingestion or intravenous delivery. Peake emphasized that the bill would not legalize smoking under any circumstances. He added that HB1 would resemble medical marijuana legislation in other states considered middle ground on the issue, recognizing conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy but excluding mental illness.
"You ought to see the security on these green houses where the cannabis plant is actually grown and processed," said Peake, who has met with growers from other states in an effort to make the bill executable.
Although 33 states now have some form of medical cannabis law, including all of Georgia's immediate neighbors, some of that legislation was fundamentally flawed in that it restricted cultivation to academic institutions that were then unable to grow any marijuana for medical or research purposes without jeopardizing their federal funding.
Peake said his bill benefits from hindsight, drawing inspiration from what has worked in other states and avoiding pitfalls from others. He did not predict incentives would be necessary to attract growers and processors, despite federal restrictions that can make it a risky business venture.
"We're going to have a very strict licensure process, probably only licensing five or six business entities to grow, to manufacture, process and dispense the cannabis oil," he said. "We're not going to open this up to [where] anybody who has a headache is going to be able to walk off the street and get cannabis oil."
Mike Hopkins, Michala's father, also spoke, telling the audience that while it was too early to jump to say conclusively, Michala appeared to be in less pain, was more alert and the duration of her seizures was shorter after just two weeks of treatment. He added that he was hoping Georgia would pass HB1 so he could bring his family home.
An earlier version of the bill passed the state house of representatives last year before dying in committee after an unrelated bill was attached to it. This year, House Speaker David Ralston has voiced support and the governor has indicated he would sign the bill into law if it passed, but the bill still faces opposition, particularly from law enforcement and faith based groups.
Covington residents Joel and Tiffany Smith came out to support the event, despite having gotten just two hours of sleep after their son, Hayden, was up all night with seizures. They urged anyone who is uncertain about the bill to seek out Peake and "get those questioned answered."
"There is a lot of education that needs to be put out there," said Tiffany. She said it is difficult to explain to people what it is like to watch one's child's days "waste away."