Impaired drivers, teenage addiction, the availability of other options and workforce concerns are among reasons cited by those opposed to expanding access to marijuana-derived medicine.
While most of the speakers who addressed state legislators at the first meeting of the The Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access on Wednesday were in favor of providing better access to the oils, there were also those opposed to any expansion.
Gregg Raduka, of Let’s Be Clear Georgia, a collaborative to prevent marijuana abuse and the Council on Alcohol and Drugs, said medical THC is “not all that different from what we think of as marijuana."
Substance abuse treatment professionals are concerned about the rise in marijuana abuse, Raduka told the commission. Increasing access to medical cannabis oils is “going to put more Georgians in harm’s way," he said.
People taking the medical oils can be just as high or impaired on the road as someone smoking marijuana, according to Raduka.
He also worries about branding, and showed photos of various medical cannabis products in other states, one labeled “cotton candy” and others that resemble candy bars.
Parent advocate Dale Jackson of LaGrange, a member of the commission, said that for his family and many others, there are other ingredients, including various cannabinoids, that work in addition to the THC.
The oils also are longer-lasting than smoking. Jackson asked Raduka if he had studied the differences in how oils affect the body.
Jackson said when his autistic son began treatment with the oil, he learned how to feed himself and communicate when it was time to go to the bathroom.
“I’ve personally seen the side effects. I’m just not complaining about my side effects,” Jackson said to applause.
Raduka invited commission members to visit a substance abuse treatment facility. When he visited one in Cobb County, just about every adolescent was there for a problem with marijuana, he said.
Impaired driving can also be a problem with legal prescription drugs, said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a member of the commission. Powell is chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
People who have gotten DUIs “will say 'but I wasn’t drinking, I was taking the pills the doctor gave me,'” Powell said. People have the attitude that driving under the influence of prescription drugs is OK.
Raduka said that it is harder and more expensive to determine whether drivers in car crashes have marijuana in their systems than it is to measure alcohol.
“But it is so worth doing,” Raduka said. “We know that people are dying on the roads from marijuana.”
Powell said he believes Raduka was attempting to tag the evils of DUI to using marijuana for medical purposes. He asked Raduka if he wouldn’t be more inclined to join Mothers Against Drunk Driving than engaging in a dialogue about finding ways to provide Georgians access to medicine.
He asked Raduka if he has any data on deaths directly caused by marijuana.
Raduka showed a slide with numbers of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana in their system. He said there have been studies done in San Diego tracking marijuana-related deaths. Raduka said he didn’t have the numbers but he thought was around 300.
Another speaker was Darryl Rogers of North Carolina. Rogers spoke about the death of his teenage son at the hands of a driver who had been smoking marijuana with his son before the crash. The driver later took her own life.
Virginia Galloway is with the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which opposes expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program.
Right now, there are less than 6,000 patients registered with the state. That’s not enough to support a production facility with lab that could cost millions of dollars, she said.
“You’re going to have to have a lot of customers just to support that. It’s pretty clear you’re going to see an uptick in use.”
She also wondered about how employers will handle having workers who are using medical cannabis but are impaired at work, and how “drug free workplace” regulations will be affected.
“This is a problem, and we need to address it,” she said.
“I understand there are two sides,” Galloway said. There are people who are hurting and can benefit from the medication. But “we also need to look at who is hurt."
Galloway is at the capitol on a regular basis and said she hears a lot of joking about the issue.
“It’s not really funny to me, because I know people who have suffered greatly with problems related to marijuana,” she said.
Troup County Sheriff James Woodruff is a member of the commission, and told Galloway he often meets with parents whose children are on drugs.
“Never have I met a parent who said my son is hooked on medical marijuana," Woodruff said. He estimated that 80 percent of the inmates at his jail are there for crimes that are somehow related to drugs.
“If I thought for one minute that me sitting on this commission would make that situation worse, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Woodruff said. “I’m here because I believe and I know there are people in my state, men and women and children, who need help. And it’s proven that this does help,” he said.
“I want to be part of this commission to make it as safe as we can. Not to give it to people to abuse but to really help those in need."
“I just want us to be careful,” Galloway said. “I don’t want people hurting… I want to make sure we don’t hurt other people in the process."
State Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, commission co-chair, asked Galloway a “what if" question.
If the state could find a perfect point where there is a strong regulatory system that only provides the oil to the people who need it, and there are regulations on its use at the workplace and strict law enforcement – is that something Galloway could support?
“Um… possibly. This is a complex issue,” Galloway said.
A medication for seizures, Epidiolex, that contains purified CBD with no THC, has received FDA. There is also marinol, a synthetic THC extract that has been legal for years. A liquid THC has also been approved, she said. Patients can use those medications instead.
Those medications are regulated by the FDA. Medical cannabis products allowed in other states are not regulated. Other states are seeing problems with mold and mildew, pesticides and other contaminants, Rushe said. Those who say expansion of the state’s current medical cannabis program won’t lead to recreational pot are being disingenuous, she said.
Nicholas Estabrooks, who used marijuana heavily for many years and is now in recovery, said he is worried that young people will get the impression that their state government supports the use of marijuana.
Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, said he worries when medical marijuana is made out to be an evil thing.
“We know there is positive scientific proof showing it’s helping children, it’s helping adults,” Clark said.
Parents are given their children various legal pharmaceuticals for serious conditions and seeing horrible side effects. “It’s killing them,” Clark said. And studies have found that opioid deaths go down in states where people have access to medical cannabis for pain.
“I just hope we can come together this fall and figure out a solution to help kids and people suffering,” Clark said.