Medical Marijuana in Georgia: Haleigh’s Hope Act
On Oct. 22, the Center for Law, Health & Society held a panel discussion on the potential medical benefits of cannabis oil, the legislative process, and the continued legal challenges for Georgians seeking cannabis oil for their serious medical conditions.
This April, House Bill 1 was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, legalizing a limited form of medical marijuana in Georgia. The law, called Haleigh’s Hope Act, grants immunity for individuals certified as eligible by their physicians for possession of up to 20 ounces of low THC cannabis oil to treat severe illnesses such as seizure disorders, cancer and sickle cell disease.
Setting the stage for the panel was Shannon Cloud, co-chair of the Georgians for Freedom in Health Care Coalition and mother of a 10-year-old girl with Dravet Syndrome — a severe form of epilepsy that causes uncontrollable seizures.
Cloud, who began advocating for medical marijuana in 2013, described why parents sought access for their children. Some patients do not respond to the various FDA-approved drugs to combat seizures or experience serious side effects, she said. Those patients turn to medical marijuana because anecdotal evidence suggests it can significantly reduce the number of seizures while avoiding or minimizing these side effects in some cases.
“As a Republican in the South, I may appear an unusual champion of this bill,” said Rep. Allen Peake and author of HB1. “To me, it is an obvious demonstration of commitment to improving the quality of life for our citizens.”
He described receiving an email from the mother of 4-year-old Haleigh Cox, who experienced more than 300 seizures a day, asking him to “Please help my
family.” The 2014 bill did not pass, but Peake was undeterred. “There were 17 medical refugee families — Georgia families who relocated to other states where medical marijuana has been legalized — including the Coxes who moved to Colorado. We needed to continue to push for this law to enable them to come home.”
Sidney Barrett, general counsel for the Georgia Department of Public Health, addressed the development and implementation of the registry for doctors prescribing medical marijuana and for patients eligible to possess it.
“Developing the registry required collaboration across jurisdictional lines,” Barrett said. “Not only did this involve public health departments, but also the Georgia Composite Board and law enforcement to ensure the public was informed and physicians were protected.”
Barrett described the planning process his office undertook, concluding that it provided eligible patients with temporary possession licenses “within seconds” of the bill’s signing.
Even with passage of HB1, patients seeking medical marijuana face challenges, the panelists said. Haleigh’s Hope Act does not allow for the growth or sale of the oil in Georgia, patients and families must risk purchasing the oil from out-of-state sources and bringing it in state, a violation of federal law.
Peake said an important next step for the Legislature is to amend the law to allow for the growth of the cannabis plant and the manufacture and sale of the oil in Georgia. Cloud also suggested that patients with diseases excluded from the law during bill negotiations could benefit from access to medical marijuana.
But state law can only go so far, Barrett said. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, which means it is considered to have high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use and access is highly restricted. This presents a catch-22. Medical marijuana remains restricted because there is little research on medical use, but said research is difficult to develop because access is highly restricted.
“The panel not only provided an opportunity to learn about a new Georgia law, but also introduced us to the policy-making process with a real-world example,” said Mitchell Jackson (J.D./M.S.H.A. ’16).
Austin Charles (J.D. ’18) agreed, “The medical marijuana panel was an excellent reminder of why we strive to learn the law: to help people in need. Hearing from a family seeking to change Georgia laws to alleviate its daughter’s suffering illustrated how policy changes affect real people in our state.”