Medicinal marijuana didn't get far in Tennessee, Georgia

Medicinal marijuana didn't get far in Tennessee, Georgia

March 27th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Nicole Mattison holds her daughter, Millie. In December, the Mattison family moved from Nashville to Colorado to gain access to medical marijuana, which has been the only thing to work against Millie's seizures. / Steven S. Harman / File / The Tennessean

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

A medicinal oil made from marijuana that won't get you high - but has parents moving to Colorado where it's used to treat children suffering from hundreds of potentially fatal seizures each week - won't be allowed in Georgia this year.

Georgia lawmakers did not pass legislation meant to make it easier for parents to get the cannabis oil.

Meanwhile, Tennessee legislators left the door open a crack.

A committee voted down a broad medical marijuana bill Tuesday. But legislators still may approve a four-year study to determine whether oil low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the component that causes marijuana's "high," is effective at alleviating children's intractable seizures, under a bill authored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

Under the legislation, he said, pot would be grown by a Tennessee university and cross-bred to produce plants that contain only minuscule amounts of THC.

"You can drink a bathtub of it and not receive any kind of high from it," said Carter, a former judge.

Carter said he is responding to calls from parents of children with "horrible, debilitating seizures" who are "being told this works.

"I want to know if it does," he said.

However, parents would have to wait at least a year for the study to begin, because Carter estimates it would take that long to breed low-THC pot plants here. And federal law prohibits transfers of marijuana or its oil from other states, including Colorado.

While Carter's bill is still alive, the Tennessee House health subcommittee voted 6-2 Tuesday against the Koozer-Kuhn Medical Cannabis Act introduced by state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville. The Jones bill went much further than Carter's and sought to legalize the use of marijuana for a wider range of ailments and provided for a regulated network of marijuana dispensaries and growing of the plant.

The lawmaker noted that 21 states plus the District of Columbia have some form of medical marijuana programs and recalled that three others had either approved it or were set to do so.

Asked how long it would take in the Volunteer State, Jones said, "I suspect being Tennessee that we would prefer to be No. 49 or 50."

But she said she intends to bring the bill back again next year.

One of the Koozer-Kuhn bill's supporters was Justin Koozer, a former Ooltewah resident who moved to Denver with his wife, Annie, so the couple can legally get cannabidiol oil for their daughter Piper's rare form of epilepsy. The toddler sometimes suffered 250 to 300 spasms in a six-hour period.

"We've met and talked to so many young children who are suffering from epilepsy that could benefit from medical marijuana," Koozer said Tuesday.

A poll released in mid-February by Middle Tennessee State University found that two-thirds of Tennessee voters favor legalizing marijuana for medical uses.

Georgia legislation 'hijacked'

Georgia's legislation died because it was "hijacked and held as a bargaining chip," said its author, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. The legislation died 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.

Peake said his legislation would have exempted parents from prosecution in Georgia for possessing low-THC oil they got from out-of-state.

"It's so low in THC you can't get high off it," Peake said. "In Colorado, it's known as 'Hippie's Disappointment.'"

The Stanley Brothers, six Colorado brothers who grow marijuana there, developed the strain that's high in cannabidiol, a component they say is "extremely beneficial" for seizure treatment.

The brothers renamed the strain "Charlotte's Web" in honor of Charlotte Figi, a 5-year-old Colorado girl whose nearly 300 seizures a week basically stopped after her mother gave her oil made from the Stanleys' marijuana. The Figis' story figured prominently in "Weed," a documentary by Dr. Sanjay Gupta that aired in 2013 on CNN.

In a Feb. 28 statement, the American Epilepsy Society wrote that the reports of cannabidiol's positive effects "give reason for hope."

"However, we must remember that these are only anecdotal reports, and robust scientific evidence for the use of marijuana is lacking," the statement reads. "The lack of information does not mean that marijuana is ineffective for epilepsy. It merely means that we do not know if marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for epilepsy, which is why it should be studied using the well-founded research methods that all other effective treatments for epilepsy have undergone."

Peake was inspired to write the legislation, dubbed "Haleigh's Hope Act," after visiting Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old girl from Forsyth, Ga., in his district. The girl was prescribed a cocktail of medications to try to control as many as 100 seizures a day, but her family wanted to try cannabidiol oil.

Peake's bill died on March 20, the General Assembly's last day of session.

"It was a pretty disappointing finish to what was clearly an initiative that had almost unanimous support from the Legislature," Peake said, vowing to introduce it next year if he's re-elected.

In the meantime, Gov. Nathan Deal may find a way to allow the oil's use in Georgia.

"The governor said [Monday] that he will work with agency heads to see if we can find a solution for these families. Beyond that, we have nothing to add," Deal spokeswoman Sasha Dlugolenski said via email Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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