It will now be up to a conference committee to work out major difference between House and Senate versions of a bill that would finally allow for legal access to marijuana-derived medical oils for Georgia patients.
Though House Bill 324, allowing for a tightly regulated system of in-state production of the oil – officially known as Low THC Medical Oil – passed the state House by an overwhelming margin – 123 to 40 – it underwent drastic changes in the Senate.
Both sides insisted on their positions Friday, and a conference committee was appointed to come up with a final version – known as a conference committee report – that will have to be approved by the House and Senate.
The committee, consisting of three senators and three state representatives, has to work quickly – Tuesday is the final day of the 2019 session, and if the bill doesn’t pass both sides by the end of the night, it’s dead until next year.
Instead of a system of 10 production licenses for private companies and up to 60 “safe access retail locations," the Senate version sets up a state commission to oversee licensing and attempt to get oil transferred from legal states to the state of Georgia, which would then get the oil to patients.
It also allows the state’s two land grant universities, the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University, to do research on medical cannabis and to get a production license. Under the speciality production license, the universities can contract with private companies to cultivate cannabis and process the oil.
There would also be just two licenses available to private companies, with the ability to operate a total of five retail locations to serve the entire state. No company or individual that has made a political contribution to any state or local candidate within the last five years would be eligible. It also prohibits any company that produces recreational marijuana in other states from applying.
The bill would require the Georgia Board of Pharmacy to develop regulations so the oil could be dispensed in pharmacies and would prohibit home delivery.
The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission wouldn’t be able to do anything until money is appropriated to fund it – which can’t happen until next year’s legislative session. The universities have until September of this year to decide if they want to pursue production licenses.
If the universities don’t move forward, two additional licenses can then be awarded to private companies, according to Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan. Brass was co-chairman of last year’s Joint Study Commission on Low THC Oil Access, and carried the bill in the Senate.
Brass is also on the conference committee, along with Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, who serves as one of the governor’s floor leaders, and Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who chairs the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, which heard the bill in the Senate.
On the House side, conferees are Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, the other study commission co-chair and author of HB 324, Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, and Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, an emergency room physician and founder of a group of urgent care centers.
Though the state-to-state transfers offer the quickest option to get the oil in the hands of Georgia patients, “it could be an uphill battle,” Brass said.
But it’s worth a shot. “If that works, it’s a great short-term solution,” Brass said Friday night. But the long-term solution is private-sector supply, Brass said.
The bill is down to the wire, but that’s nothing new for the medical cannabis bills in the Georgia legislature.
“We’re getting something,” Brass said. But just what remains to be seen, and Brass said legislators have to be careful “about how much we push it in conference."
Georgia’s Hope, the major advocacy organization for medical cannabis oils, has been urging people to contact Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan to ask for a better bill.
In a post Friday, after HB 324 passed the Senate, Georgia’s Hope stated: "We are unsure why the Lieutenant Governor and the Georgia Senate decided not to listen to what patients were telling them would work, and to make drastic changes at the last minute to a bill that had already been researched and had overwhelming support. We hope the Lieutenant Governor keeps his promise that he will allow patients access to medicine, because his current Senate Substitute does not live up to that promise. We ask him to please allow the changes necessary to allow access to medicine that we patients are already allowed to possess."