State Sen. Matt Brass, a co-chairman of the commission, said he wants to help patients who can benefit from medical marijuana without moving the state closer to legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
“I know this bill will not make everyone happy,” said Brass, a Republican from Newnan. “We’re simply doing this to get access for our patients.”
Georgia's medical marijuana law covers 16 conditions, including severe seizures, deadly cancer, peripheral neuropathy and multiple sclerosis. Patients who register with the state are protected from criminal prosecution for possessing up to 20 fluid ounces of low THC oil.
Thirty-one states already allow some form of marijuana cultivation, and 15 more states have laws similar to Georgia’s, which permit possession of the drug for medical purposes, according to the commission. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Opponents of expanded access to medical marijuana say they're concerned it could eventually lead to legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.
“If anyone thinks this isn’t a path to legalization, they’re deceiving themselves,” said Virginia Galloway, of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The industry is going to have a vested interest in legalization because they’re gong to want to broaden their market.”
Law enforcement agencies often oppose marijuana cultivation, saying it could be abused and lead to addiction and crime.
The commission said the state government should create standards for security, acquisition, testing, training and destruction of unused portions of the plant. Licenses should be distributed to both large and small companies, it said. Marijuana growing operations should be held indoors, and no pesticides or insecticides would be allowed.
Shannon Cloud, whose 13-year-old daughter takes medical marijuana to treat seizures she suffers from Dravet syndrome, said patients need access to the only medicine that can make a substantial improvement to their condition. Dravet syndrome is a rare form of epilepsy that often results in behavioral and developmental delays.
Since her daughter began using low THC oil, her seizures have become less frequent and severe, and she's been able to think more clearly, Cloud said.
"The public is more open to it now than they were a few years ago when we first started pushing for this," said Cloud, who lives in Smyrna and is a member of the commission. "I'm optimistic that the Legislature will take the recommendations seriously and actually decide to act on it this year."
The commission didn’t endorse home-grown marijuana or THC levels higher than the 5 percent currently allowed in Georgia.
A separate House study committee previously voted unanimously this month to support legislation that would allow hemp farming and cannabis oil distribution, as long as those products contain less than 0.3 percent THC. Hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, but their cultivation methods and THC levels are different.
Congress passed a farm bill this month that legalizes the production of hemp as an agricultural product. States such as Georgia can now set up regulations for standards, testing and licensing fees.
The Georgia General Assembly will consider marijuana-related bills during its 2019 legislative session, which begins Jan. 14.
Medical marijuana recommendations
Georgia’s Joint Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access has endorsed these proposals for consideration by the General Assembly during its upcoming session:
- Allow 10 grow licenses, 10 manufacturing licenses and an "adequate number" of dispensing licenses.
- Prohibit the use of pesticides and insecticides in cultivation.
- Urge the federal government to change the classification of marijuana so that it's no longer considered a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use.
- Require uniform product labeling and independent lab testing for purity and safety.
- Levy application and licensing fees to cover the $500,000 cost for equipment and staff to test medical marijuana products.
- Prevent the use of marijuana other than for the conditions allowed under current state law.