ATLANTA — A bill that could legalize the use of medical marijuana in Georgia for the treatment of epilepsy is scheduled for filing at the state Capitol Tuesday.
The bill, by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, would allow the parents of young epilepsy patients to apply to one of a handful of academic medical centers to get an oil derived from cannabis that could greatly reduce their number of seizures. Some children can have more than 100 brain-stopping seizures a day.
Parents started lobbying the state Capitol this year, asking for legal medical marijuana to treat such severe seizure disorders. Those parents include Janea and Brian Cox of Forsyth. They say there are children with the same diagnosis as their daughter, Haleigh, who have benefited from a medicine containing a cannabis extract.
Access to marijuana-based medicine would be “restricted, controlled by doctors and limited in scope,” Peake said. His bill speaks only to an oil from plants that are high in therapeutic cannabidiol, or CBD, and low in hallucinogens. He also said he firmly opposes the recreational use of marijuana.
The bill wold work by empowering a long-moribund Georgia board to study medical marijuana and epilepsy.
Georgia law already says that interested doctors and patients can apply to the Georgia Composite Medical Board to get involved in medical marijuana studies for glaucoma and cancer.
But “the Patient (Qualification) Review Board has been inactive for almost 15, 20 years,” Peake said. So no research has been done.
His bill would add epilepsy to the disorders that review board doctors could study.
“You’ll have physicians making decisions at academic medical centers, of which there are only five:” the University of Georgia, Georgia Regents University, plus Mercer, Emory and Morehouse universities, Peake said.
“Private doctors would not be allowed to prescribe medical marijuana,” he said.
The Medical Association of Georgia “appreciates Rep. Peake’s efforts to take MAG’s perspective into account as he developed his legislation to expand the state’s law to include medical marijuana for use for medicinal purposes in academic settings,” said the association’s president, Dr. William E. Silver, in a written statement. They support his pending bill.
As for where to find a substance that federal law bans nationwide, the plan now is to get medicine from Colorado, Peake said, where cannabis use is legal for both medicinal and recreational use. He said Georgia parents should not have to leave their homes, jobs, churches and communities to move to Colorado, as the Coxes have considered.
The federal government does provide marijuana for approved research via the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
But whatever the source, insurance companies do not cover medical cannabis.
So the cost will likely be borne by the patients in Georgia, but it could also be funded through donations or the study program itself. The federal government does fund some medical marijuana studies.
But Peake isn’t worried about cost right now.
“I believe strongly we’ll have some folks who will provide donated funds for these parents who cant afford it,” he said.
There are still other questions yet to be answered about how medical marijuana might be administered in Georgia.
State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, said he’s not sure if he will sign Peake’s bill because he doesn’t yet know how the marijuana would be distributed, stored, taxed, funded or policed.
“Those costs can add up quickly,” said the Pio Nono Avenue optometrist.
“If you really want to do something with marijuana, decriminalize it,” said Beverly, adding that would help the general public as well as the medical community.
For one, young adults who now get in big legal trouble for a little bit of marijuana would not get such a big blot on their record. For another, patients who need medicinal cannabis could get it more easily.
Peake said he thinks his bill will have bipartisan support and also said House Republican leadership, who are the real gatekeepers, have “opened the door” to his idea.
The state legislative session will end sometime in March, giving Peake just a short time to move the bill.