Georgia, Tennessee eye different paths to legal medical marijuana

Georgia, Tennessee eye different paths to legal medical marijuana

January 26th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Nicole Mattison feeds her daughter, Millie, 22 months, through a feeding tube at her Nashville home on Jan. 10. Millie suffers from a condition that causes almost constant seizures that conventional medicines to little to help, so Nicole and her husband, Penn, are moving the family to Colorado to legally obtain medical marijuana for Millie. Medical marijuana has been found to relieve seizures in patients with a condition like Millie.

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should medical marijuana be OK'd for use here?

Some have dubbed 2014 as the year of marijuana legalization.

Voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives that legalized the sale this year of recreational pot. A recent Gallup poll found for the first time that a clear majority of Americans -- 58 percent -- say marijuana should be legalized, and President Barack Obama was quoted this month in a New Yorker magazine article as saying, "I don't think [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol."

Twenty states and the District of Columbia now allow medical marijuana, and about 10 other states have medical marijuana laws in the works -- including Tennessee and Georgia.

Here in the Bible Belt, however, conservative lawmakers prefer a form of therapeutic cannabis that helps reduce seizures in children but doesn't cause a buzz because of its low content of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound responsible for marijuana's "high."

"It would not be smoked," Georgia state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, told a Macon TV news station. "We need to make sure that everybody understands that."

Peake is expected to introduce a bill this week in the Georgia House that would allow patients to receive a form of medically beneficial cannabis, cannabidiol oil, that could be injected or given orally. It would be tightly restricted, he said, and prescribed by doctors.

Peake was inspired to write the legislation after visiting Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old girl from Forsyth, Ga., in his district. She takes a cocktail of medications to try to control as many as 100 seizures a day.

Cox's family was ready to move to Colorado after talking with parents there whose children's seizures had basically been cured by cannabidiol oil -- but the move was postponed this month when Haleigh stopped breathing and had to stay at Children's Hospital at Egleston in Atlanta.

Another Georgia legislator, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has proposed holding hearings in the Georgia General Assembly about the health benefits of medical marijuana for such conditions as seizures and relief of nausea.

In a recent poll, a majority of Georgia residents -- 54 percent -- favored laws like Colorado's and Washington's that allow recreational pot use; 57 percent supported medical marijuana with a doctor's prescription and 62 percent want to do away with criminal penalties for less than an ounce of pot. The telephone poll was commissioned by two Georgia affiliates of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

But when NORML members held a recent rally on the state Capitol steps, neither Peake nor McKoon -- who both oppose recreational marijuana use -- attended.

Named for toddler

Tennessee's bill, introduced by state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, is dubbed the "Koozer-Kuhn Medical Cannabis Act."

The Kuhn refers to Jeanne Kuhn, a Tennessee cancer patient who used marijuana as medicine before her death in 1996. Her husband, Paul Kuhn, formerly was national chairman of NORML.

The Koozer part refers to a former Ooltewah toddler, Piper Koozer. Her parents, Justin and Annie Koozer, moved to Denver, Colo., where they can legally get cannabidiol oil for Piper's rare form of epilepsy. Her condition, Aicardi syndrome, is caused by a missing corpus callosum, the part of the brain that allows the right and left sides to communicate. An estimated 800 children nationwide have the syndrome.

Before the Koozers left for Colorado, the girl suffered from 250 to 300 spasms in a six-hour period.

"The frequency of seizures is down and the intensity of seizures is down," Justin Koozer said Friday. "We're pretty impressed."

Koozer has been calling Tennessee legislators from Colorado to share his story and encourage them to support marijuana legalization. Republican lawmakers haven't supported Jones' bill, he said, but some have suggested Tennessee could go the route of Georgia and propose approval of low-THC cannabidiol oil.

"It really has no street value, because you can't get high off it," Koozer said.

While low-THC cannabidiol oil helps patients like his daughter, Koozer said THC has medicinal benefits, too, such as pain and nausea relief.

A recent article in The Tennessean highlighted Penn and Nicole Mattison, who sold their landscaping business and moved their daughter, Millie, and her two older brothers from West Nashville to Colorado Springs, Colo. They've found a doctor there willing to treat Millie with Realm Oil, extracted from a strain of cannabis low in psychoactive THC -- the intoxicating compound recreational users seek -- and high in cannabidiol, which initial research shows may be a potent anti-epileptic compound.

Penn Mattison told The Tennessean he got the idea from Dr. Sanjay Gupta's CNN special report, "Weed."

Tennessee state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said he's had long talks with the Koozer family and supports legalization of low-THC cannabis oil for those suffering from seizures.

But even if it were legal in Tennessee, the Stanley brothers, who founded the nonprofit Realm of Caring Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo., wouldn't ship their low-THC Realm Oil here because that would violate federal law.

"I talked to Joel Stanley last Saturday," Carter said. "He is not for medical marijuana. He is for low-THC cannabis oil that has a dramatic effect in reducing those kids' seizures."

The Realm of Caring is working on developing a low-THC oil from industrial hemp plants, not marijuana plants, that would be able to be to be sold in Tennessee without medical marijuana legalization, Carter said.

Carter, who is adamantly opposed to recreational marijuana use, thinks Jones' bill to legalize medical marijuana in Tennessee would be too lenient.

"It is so broad that if you have regular headaches, you can go out behind the barn and smoke marijuana," he said.

Long odds

Jones' bill would allow medical marijuana use for such diseases as cancer, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer's disease and Crohn's disease, which killed Jones' brother in 2010 and inspired her to introduce the legislation. The bill includes what's been called a catch-all: "any other medical condition or its treatment as certified or prescribed by practitioners and approved by the health department."

The bill calls for participants to enroll in what would be called the "Safe Access" program. They would get a Safe Access card that they would use to get the "dried flowers of the female cannabis plant and any mixture or preparation thereof," the bill states.

Pundits doubt the Democratic lawmaker's bill can pass as written.

Past medical marijuana bills in Tennessee gained little traction, and House and Senate sponsors of the last bill, proposed in 2012, lost re-election bids, The Tennessean reported.

Republicans hold supermajorities in the Tennessee General Assembly, with 26 seats in the Senate to the Democrats' seven, and 70 House seats to the Democrats' 28.

But Jones is undeterred, The Tennessean article states, because medical marijuana once was legal in Tennessee. In the early 1980s, Tennessee was among a handful of states that joined the federal Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research program. The measure was repealed in 1989.

Georgia, too, legalized the use of marijuana for cancer and glaucoma patients in 1980, but the review board that was supposed to qualify patients has been inactive for about 20 years, according to Macon TV news station WMAZ.

"Some of the conservatives up here believe that it's not fair to keep these sort of remedies from people who need them," Jones told The Tennessean.

"That makes me very hopeful for the legislation. If you look at a list of the diseases and sicknesses that medical marijuana can positively affect, it is a huge, long list of things."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.