Georgia's House Approves Medical Cannabis Bill, but Patient Access Remains in Doubt

Late yesterday, the Georgia House of Representatives approved HB 885, a piece of medical cannabis legislation aimed at fixing the state's current but non-functioning medical cannabis law that was approved circa 1980. Bill sponsor Allen Peake and GA House of Representatives deserves credit for overwhelming approving (171-4) a sincere attempt at reviving the current non-functioning law; however, serious doubts remain concerning patients' ability to access cannabis for therapeutic use, as well as the means of ingesting their medicine.

The bill's attempt to bring medical cannabis to patients in Georgia appears to be modeled in part after the bill that was signed into law in Maryland in 2013, HB 1101. That bill created a system in which patients could theoretically obtain medical cannabis from an "academic medical center" (AMC), which is hospital that is approved to conduct trials on human subjects. Unfortunately, this program has not worked thus far in Maryland, not because of lack of effort by the state's Natalie M. LaParade Medical Marijuana Commission, which recently unveiled draft regulations for the Maryland program, but rather that AMCs will not participate in the program because doing so would endanger the AMC's federal funding and accreditation. Because of this deficiency in Maryland current law, that state is actively attempting to approve more traditional medical cannabis dispensary legislation this session. Georgia appears to be setting up itself up for the situation Maryland presently has, but with a more restrictive program.

Georgia's HB 885 would allow for medical cannabis to used to treat seizure disorders, cancer, and glaucoma, but with far greater restrictions than any other medical cannabis law in the country. For example, seizure disorder patients would not be allowed to ingest their medicine via smoking, and are limited to "nonsmoking delivery system[s] whether it be in the form of liquid, pill, or injection or other delivery method that does not include smoking." The bill does not limit seizure disorder patients to only using CBD, as some have reported, but the law does appear to encourage high-CBD strains for seizure disorder treatment.

For cancer patients, they are only allowed access to medical cannabis if they are facing "a life-threatening situation in which treatment by chemotherapy or radiology has produced severe side effects." This is problematic because "life-threatening" is not a defined term, and moreover, a cancer patient must be using chemotherapy or radiology in order to use medical cannabis. While many patients suffering serious forms of cancer will no doubt be suffering from the effects of chemo and radiology, not every cancer patient will do so, and all patients will cancer deserve the tumor fighting potential that medical cannabis therapy can offer.

Additionally, even if an AMC risked its federal accreditation and funding to participate as a program, patients in certain parts of Georgia would face great geographic difficulty obtaining their medicine, as only AMCs that apply and are approved by the state would be allowed to dispense medical cannabis. Given that no AMCs in Maryland are actively seeking to participate in the program, Georgia patient's have little reason to be optimistic that any Georgia AMCs, let alone enough to be spread out across the state to ease geographic burdens, would participate.

One positive way in which Georgia's HB 885 resembles Maryland's current program is that it, too, would create commission of medical professionals to help implement the law called the Georgia Composite Medical Board. While the medical cannabis access model in Maryland is flawed due to the AMC requirement, the Maryland Commission has already laid groundwork with its drafts recommendations, and the fact that they are already appointed and meeting regularly should help ensure timely implementation of a 2014 Maryland bill to fix the existing program. Appointment of the Georgia Board could potentially prepare the state to quickly implement a follow up bill next session, but ideally it won't have to come to that.

In its present form, GA HB 885 falls short of true comprehensive medical cannabis legislation, but it is now up to the Georgia State Senate to amend HB 885 into the type of medical cannabis law all that of Georgia's patients deserve. The qualifying conditions list needs to be expanded to allow for all patients who may could benefit and obtain relief from medical cannabis therapy. Patients deserve to have access to medical cannabis through tried and true means based on successful programs in other states, meaning some combination of medical cannabis dispensaries and/or patient cultivation. Georgia State Senators should look to the best practices of other states and feel confident that they can do more than what's presently in HB 885 to help Georgia's patient population.