Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday revived an effort to let children suffering from seizures try medicinal marijuana oil as treatment.
At a news conference in Atlanta, Deal said he wants to pursue clinical trials of cannabis oil at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, the state's academic health center.
Marijuana's federal designation in 1970 as a Schedule 1 drug -- along with heroin and morphine -- makes it difficult for scientists to obtain cannabis for use in studies.
"I have spoken directly with the FDA, and they have shown a willingness to work with the state of Georgia," Deal said.
The most promising solution, Deal said, involves pairing the university with GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company that has purified liquid cannabis oil in the FDA testing phase. Deal said it "contains no THC, which is the component in marijuana that intoxicates a user."
Georgia Regents University may also pursue a clinical trial using oil from cannabis grown at a farm at the University of Mississippi for research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Only a handful of people now get medicinal marijuana grown at the "Ole Miss" farm.
Deal put a positive spin on the Georgia Assembly's failure to pass the "Haleigh's Hope Act." The legislation was introduced by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who named the bill after Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old girl in his district who was prescribed a cocktail of medications to try to control as many as 100 seizures a day.
Her family wanted to try oil that's high in cannabidiol (CBD) an active component of cannabis, that's available in Colorado. Peake's legislation would have removed state criminal penalties for possessing the oil, but it died on the Assembly's last day in session.
It had strong support, but was "hijacked and held as a bargaining chip," Peake said, after the Senate added a requirement for insurance companies to cover autism treatment in young patients -- a requirement that didn't have a chance in the House.
Deal said, "Even if the legislation had passed, we would still need to take these steps, so we haven't lost any time." He praised the General Assembly for giving "serious consideration" to Peake's bill.
It may be only a matter of months before parents whose children suffer from Dravet syndrome, a rare and intractable disease, are able to enroll in studies using GW Pharmaceuticals' proprietary drug, Epidiolex, according to Dr. Yong Park, a pediatric neurologist at Georgia Regents Health System.
However, some of the children could receive a placebo, instead of the cannabidiol oil, he said, since the clinical trial would likely be a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
After the Dravet syndrome study begins, the university hopes to start offering Epidiolex to children suffering from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), another rare type of child-onset epilepsy that's sometimes treated with a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet.
Park, who specializes in pediatric epilepsy and treats patients at Children's Hospital of Georgia, said he knows parents will be eager to try anything that could help their children.
"Everybody's watching this one," Park said.
Shannon and Blaine Cloud want their 8-year-old daughter, Alaina, to be a participant if either drug trial moves forward.
Alaina has regular seizures caused by Dravet syndrome. Shannon Cloud said the couple is aware that clinical trials can take a long time to get started. But they hope medication using cannabis oil could transform their daughter's life.
"It would actually get us to know who she really is," Blaine Cloud said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.