A compromise bill to expand the conditions that can legally be treated with cannabis oil in Georgia is set to go before the Georgia House of Representatives on Wednesday.
On Friday, a House committee approved changes to Senate Bill 16 which add several new conditions and keeps the maximum allowable percentage of THC at 5 percent.
If the bill is approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgians with “severe or end-stage” autism, AIDS, Tourette’s Syndrome and peripheral neuropathy, will be allowed to legally use low-THC cannabis oil.
The severe requirement for autism only applies to those under 18. All adults with autism would qualify under the most recent version of the bill. SB 16 would also allow cannabis oil to be used by anyone with the skin disease epidermolysis bullsoa, and anyone receiving hospice care.
Cannabidiol, one of many components of the marijuana plant, is the primary active ingredient in the cannabis oils used to treat medical conditions in Georgia. The oil can have up to 5 percent THC, which is the main component that produces marijuana’s high, and can also have THC-acid.
Georgians with seizure disorders, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, sickle cell disease and severe or end-stage Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's’ disease or cancer are already able to use the oil.
A similar expansion bill died at the end of last year’s Georgia General Assembly session, never receiving a vote in the Senate. The current compromise, however, is something expected to meet with Senate approval.
The original version of SB 16 would have added autism but decreased the allowable percentage of THC to 3 percent. The language has now been changed to add the new conditions. If it passes the House, it will go to the Senate, which can agree or disagree with the changes.
House Bill 65, which passed the House by a vote of 156-6, significantly expanded the conditions that could be treated with the oil. But it has sat in a Senate committee since March 3 and hasn’t received a hearing.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is president of the Senate, was instrumental in the current compromise bill, said advocate Dale Jackson of LaGrange, whose son has severe autism.
“It is not everything that we are asking for but I do believe it is at least a reasonable compromise – those are pretty hard to come by here at the capitol,” Jackson said in a Facebook video.
It will be up to an individual patient’s doctor to decide if a condition qualifies as “severe or end-stage,” Jackson said.
Coweta Sen. Matt Brass, who was elected in November, has been advocating for the expansion. When SB was first on the Senate floor, Brass offered an amendment to remove the “severe” requirement for autism, but it failed.
Jackson is the outgoing 3rd District chairman for the Georgia Republican Party. Brass and Jackson got to knew each other when Brass worked for then-3rd District Congressman Lynn Westmoreland.
Brass said he talked with Jackson about adding autism to the list during his election campaign. “I told him whether you support me or not, I’m going to fight to try to get autism included,” Brass said.
That’s how he got involved in advocating for expanded access to medical cannabis. He’s also been talking to local families who are using the oil for their children – and seeing results.
Seeing children with severe conditions is heartbreaking. “But it gives you hope that there is something out there that is helping,” Brass said.
In advocating at the Capitol for medical cannabis expansion, “I was really just doing my job as a senator – I was being a voice for my constituents and the families in my district that needed help.”
Several conditions that were in HB 65 were removed in the compromise. They included Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic pain and autoimmune disease.
Brass said some of those conditions had to go in order to get Senate approval. Chronic pain, in particular, would have likely killed the bill, he said.
“You’ve got to produce something that is going to pass. That is the bottom line. You can put anything you want on there but if it doesn’t pass, at the end of the day, you haven’t done anything.”
Though it’s legal to use the oil for certain conditions, getting the oil isn’t easy. Oil that is below 0.3 percent THC can be shipped. Otherwise, patients or their caregivers typically have to smuggle it in from other states or produce it illegally at home.
“Passing the law and actually being able to receive the medicine are two different things,” said local mom Elizabeth Dent. “Yes, it’s great Georgia recognizes medical cannabis, but how are we to obtain it?”
Dent’s son has Crohn’s disease and she has discussed CBD oil with his doctor.
“However, we have hit the wall with getting it. So what’s the purpose?” Dent said. “Until it can be legal to manufacture in Georgia, that’s going to be hard.”
Brass said he will continue to advocate for removing the “severe or end-stage” restrictions.
“If we’re going to say this is medicine and we’re going to allow it as a treatment … we obviously allow our doctors to use their best judgement. I don’t want to tie their hands on what they can or cannot use it for. Either let them use it or don’t.”
Brass said he’s certainly not for the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“But I do think there are medical uses – and you can see it,” he said. “Now we need to turn our attention to Washington and lobby to get them to take it from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
The federal government has long had marijuana on Schedule I – a list of the drugs considered to have the highest potential for abuse and no medical use.
The current compromise comes a day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he thinks medical marijuana has “been hyped, maybe too much,” and said dependence on marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin addiction.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia stated recently that he supported moving marijuana from Schedule I, but later clarified he was only talking about CBD oil. Until recently, CBD oil wasn’t even on the schedule, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency decided to make it a Schedule 1 drug in December.