Georgia lawmakers expected to revisit medical cannabis system

In this Feb. 20, 2015, photo, Alaska Cannabis Club CEO Charlo Greene smokes a joint at the medical marijuana dispensary in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Three years ago, families of patients who relied on medical cannabis to manage severe illnesses celebrated when Georgia lawmakers signed off on local production of low-THC oil.

But the promised path to relief has been marred by a clumsy licensing system - one that faces challenges in court - and lawmakers are under pressure to fix the situation.

Georgia's medical marijuana board - the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission - granted licenses to six companies out of 69 applicants last year. Speculation swirled over the legitimacy of the bidding system after the final companies were approved and 22 failed applicants filed protests - halting any progress on launching the industry.

One cannabis company, Georgia Atlas, even filed a lawsuit alleging the licensing process was "lacking in transparency, objectivity and fairness."

During a commission meeting over the weekend, Andrew Turnage, the executive director of the state board, said the protest process is on track to be completed this year, which would finalize the granted licenses.

The commission was created in 2019, when lawmakers passed "Georgia's Hope Act," which authorized production and sale in the state. It's made up of seven people - a chair and six members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.

Chairman Dr. Christopher Edwards, a prominent Atlanta surgeon, defended the commission's work and said every state that has passed access to medical cannabis has faced protest over the licensing process.

"Every one of them - no matter which one it was - had protesters," he said. "We all know there's a lot of money involved in this. Quite frankly, we've kept our focus on patient service and access to the patients. We wish that everybody would keep their focus there, but sometimes people see more green than they do humanity."

But the embattled process has dampened the hopes of patients and their family members who say lives depend on the problem being fixed.

The number of patients on Georgia's Low THC Oil Registry has increased by 53% in the past three years from 13,000 patients in 2019 to now more than 20,000, according to the board.

Among those waiting is Sebastien Cotte's 11-year-old son, Jagger, who struggles to breathe normally and suffers frequent and severe seizures due to a rare and terminal form of mitochondrial disease called Leigh's disease.

Cotte has been among the leading advocates for medicinal THC access and helped lobby for its legalization in 2015.

Cotte said the family began treating Jagger's illness with cannabis on his fourth birthday - which doctors predicted he wouldn't live past.

Seven years later, Cotte is certain the treatment is what has kept his son alive, but Cotte has risked potential jail time to acquire it.

Now, without open access to THC oil in Atlanta, Cotte said, Jagger is still holding on day by day. And even with new legislative movements this session, patients must still wait for the companies to grow and distribute the products, which could take months.

"For hundreds of thousands of families like mine and for kids like Jagger, this is a life-or-death situation," he said. "They're playing games with our lives."

Jagger recently spent 75 days in the hospital after contracting COVID-19.

"We just got home on Thanksgiving and he got very, very sick from COVID and he still has some very bad long-term side effects of COVID," Cotte said. "So he's really struggling right now, but he's still alive, and cannabis has a lot to do with it."

With the legislative session underway, lawmakers are expected to revisit the issue under mounting scrutiny.

Hartwell Republican Rep. Allen Powell, chairman of the regulated industries committee, said there are "major issues" that must be resolved to finally reach the production stage in Georgia.

"We think there are some changes that need to be made to ramp this up, to get [licensed companies] started and get moving," Powell said on Georgia Public Broadcasting. "I really think that, quite honestly, the problem has been that there was a lack of due process in how the licenses were reviewed."

Powell said there should have been a third-party industry consultant to review applications which would have ensured more transparency.

The state's medical cannabis board over the weekend gave insight on what Georgians may be able to expect lawmakers to do.

Turnage said among the board's proposed legislative changes is legislation for additional licenses.

The program also is expecting an influx of cash. Turnage said the commission expects $622,000 in the amended fiscal year 2022 budget and a $908,000 budget for 2023 - a line item in Gov. Brian Kemp's budget proposal - compared with a $211,000 operating budget last year.