AUGUSTA, Ga. - Georgia's governor is pushing clinical trials for a marijuana-derived drug that proponents say could help treat severe seizure disorders among children, an unlikely election-year move for a Republican in a conservative part of the country that is just beginning to warm up to medical marijuana in narrow circumstances.
Since 1996, 23 states around the country and the District of Columbia have legalized comprehensive access to medical marijuana, and two have decriminalized the drug entirely. But the South has largely resisted out of fears it could lead to widespread drug abuse and other social ills.
This year, though, six Southern states adopted laws establishing some limited access to marijuana products that have minimal or no tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes users feel high. A similar effort in Georgia failed on the last day of the legislative session, which prompted Gov. Nathan Deal - a Republican up for re-election - to take action to coordinate clinical trial programs in the state.
"We all have to be sensitive to the children who have these seizures, and that is the focal point for all this discussion," Deal said Tuesday after meeting with various representatives involved in establishing the clinical trials. "I want it to be helpful, not harmful. And I want it to be legal, and that's why we are taking the steps to make sure we achieve all of those goals."
Also Tuesday, another conservative state, Utah, issued its first registration card under its limited medical marijuana program geared toward those with severe epilepsy. Under Utah's program, the marijuana extract known as cannabidiol can only be obtained from other states and with a neurologist's consent. The extract can be administered orally.
Meanwhile, Washington was at the other end of the spectrum as Tuesday marked the first day residents of that state could buy marijuana legally without a doctor's note.
In the South, the key to widespread acceptance has been the advocacy of parents who say their children suffering from severe seizure disorders could benefit from the use of the cannabidiol, although scientific research remains limited.
Deal said the science is not settled, which is why the clinical trials are so crucial. Under Georgia's plan, the state through Georgia Regents University in Augusta will be partnering with London-based GW Pharmaceuticals for an expanded clinical trial. The company also has a research partnership with New York and is conducting trials in several states.
Deal said the Georgia clinical trial would hopefully be up and running by the end of the year or the first part of 2015. A separate clinical trial, which would be state-run, would require FDA approval, and it's not yet known how long that will take, Deal said.
Valerie Weaver brought her 6-year-old son, Preston, who has Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, to the governor's event at Children's Hospital of Georgia on the campus of Georgia Regents University. Weaver said she was hopeful the trials could help her son, who suffers from 60 to 80 seizures a day.
"It's time we get with the program," Weaver said, noting education is key to broader acceptance. "It's the Bible Belt. The only thing I can tell people is to educate yourself."