Georgia bill seeks in-state medical marijuana growing and sales

Medical marijuana oil could be sold to patients in Georgia who are already allowed to use it, according to a bill being introduced Thursday.

The proposal calls for up to 10 medical marijuana dispensaries to serve the state's rising number of registered patients — 8,400 so far. The drug would be legally grown, manufactured, tested, tracked and distributed for the first time if the legislation passes.

The bill is the next step for Georgia's medical marijuana program, which since 2015 has permitted patients to possess and use marijuana with less than 5 percent THC, the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

It remains illegal to buy, sell or transport the drug, but state Rep. Micah Gravley, the sponsor of the bill, says that needs to change.

“The problem is that there’s nowhere to purchase the oil here in the state of Georgia,” said Gravley, a Republican from Douglasville. “We know it’s beneficial. We’ve seen seizures reduced, we’ve seen the easing of the effects of Parkinson’s, cancer, MS (multiple sclerosis), Crohn’s (disease), sickle cell anemia and autism.”

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The bill’s prospects are uncertain in the Georgia General Assembly, but the proposal has bipartisan support from members of the state’s Republican majority as well as from many Democrats.

If approved, Georgia would join 31 states that already allow some form of marijuana cultivation, according to the Joint Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access, a group of lawmakers and stakeholders that recommended licensing marijuana growers, manufacturers and dispensaries.

The bill will encounter opposition from those who fear it will eventually lead to outright legalization of marijuana for recreational as well as medical purposes. They’re also concerned that the drug is unsafe and its health benefits are overstated.

“Cultivation is the kiss of death. It leads to full legalization,” said Sue Rusche, president and CEO of National Families in Action, which is based in Atlanta. “Every state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use began with legalizing cultivation of marijuana for medical use.”

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.

Last year, the General Assembly added post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain to the list of conditions eligible for treatment by cannabis oil.

Credit: Jack Taylor

Credit: Jack Taylor

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has left open the possibility for in-state cultivation of medical marijuana.

“I sympathize and empathize with them on that issue, and I support research-based expansion,” Kemp said in an interview on Georgia Public Broadcasting last month. “Thankfully, there is some research that’s going on in this field that will give us some good data that will kind of tell us how to move forward.”

According to a draft of the legislation, Georgia would give five licenses to large companies to grow, process and manufacture medical cannabis oil. Licenses would require a $50,000 application fee, a $100,000 initial license fee and a $50,000 annual license renewal fee.

Another five licenses would be available to smaller companies that want to grow, process and manufacture medical cannabis oil. Those companies would have to pay a $12,500 application fee, a $25,000 initial license fee and a $12,500 annual license renewal fee.

The state could issue a total of 10 retail licenses, including those granted to growers and manufacturers. Retail licenses would cost companies $10,000 for an application fee, $20,000 for an initial license fee and $10,000 for an annual license renewal fee.

Licenses would be approved by Jan. 1, 2020, and state-sanctioned medical marijuana products would be available to patients within 12 months of the license date.

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