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Thursday August 27th, 2015 3:25PM

Georgia explores medical marijuana options

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- A bill to allow a form of medical marijuana in Georgia may have failed to become law this year, but Gov. Nathan Deal has pledged to look for other options to help families who believe cannabis oil could help ease their children's debilitating conditions.

One step could be the revival of a research program established under a 1980 state law to study the effects of medical marijuana on cancer and glaucoma patients. The program was disbanded a few years later, but the law remains. Bill sponsor Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said that's one of a few options the state could consider.

"The governor has a smart team of lawyers around him and he has very smart advisers around him. I'm pretty confident that if something can be done, they will figure out a way to make it happen within the parameters of the law," Peake said.

There would be numerous hurdles, and Deal has acknowledged he's not sure anything can be done without legislation. But the overwhelming support for the bill by top Republican lawmakers and the heartfelt push by families who were a constant presence at the Capitol during the session could prompt state officials to act.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said it was too early to say what options might be available and reiterated the governor wants to find a solution. Deal said recently he was moved by the families advocating for the bill and would be speaking with key state officials to see what might be possible.

"I certainly think that all of us want to figure out if there is something we can do to provide them with the kind of assistance that they need," Deal said recently.

Proponents of the effort have emphasized any program would be limited in scope and not open the door to recreational marijuana use in the state. They argue the cannabis oil, which is administered in a liquid form, is very low in THC, the active ingredient that produces the marijuana high.

If there is interest in reviving the old research program, a major obstacle would be access. The 1980 law requires any marijuana used in the program to be obtained from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and must be used and prescribed in accordance with FDA and DEA regulations, which also prohibit the drug from being transported across state lines.

As a result, Georgia would need approval from the federal government to obtain the drug, and Peake said the National Institute on Drug Abuse is not currently growing any of the strains that would produce the cannabis oil.

During the session, Peake offered other alternatives including allowing academic research centers in the state to grow cannabis but that raised concerns that those institutions could lose federal funding for participating in an unsanctioned program. Peake also suggested allowing the state partner with a nonprofit dispensary that could grow the cannabis in Georgia. In the end, Peake' bill failed due to last-minute maneuvers by lawmakers who wanted to pass a separate measure, unpopular to some, that would require insurers in the state to cover autism treatment.

If the state were to revive the old cannabis research program, another challenge might be finding doctors willing to oversee it. The Georgia Composite Medical Board in 2011 had sought to revive the program by recruiting physicians to serve on an oversight panel and there was little interest, according to LaSharn Hughes, the board's executive director.

That was before medical marijuana became a hot topic during the legislative session and families rallied together to share stories of children suffering from dozens of seizures a day. Although there is little academic research pointing to the benefits of cannabis oil, the families say anecdotal evidence out of Colorado, where it is available, is reason for hope.

Under the 1980 law, patients, doctors or pharmacists who participate in the program would be immune from state prosecution for marijuana possession. The law doesn't allow patients to grow their own cannabis and it could only be obtained from a state-certified pharmacy. Numerous rules would need to be changed, including expanding those eligible for the program to include people with severe seizure disorders.

Hughes said the medical board has not heard from the governor's office about the old research program, but is ready to help if needed.

Some families, however, are not waiting for the state to act. Janae Cox, whose 4-year-old daughter Haleigh inspired Peake to sponsor the bill, has been in Colorado for the last few weeks. Cox said her daughter, who suffered up to 200 seizures a day as a result of Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, has shown considerable improvement since beginning the cannabis oil. In recent days, Haleigh has had as few as four seizures a day and at most 10.

"We couldn't wait any longer. We were going to lose Haleigh if we didn't get out here," Cox said, adding her daughter is now smiling and trying to sit up on her own.

Cox said she knows Deal will be limited in what he can do but remains hopeful.

"With the governor on our side, it gives us a renewed hope," she said. "But we'll always have hope that our state will do the right thing."
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