- Thousands of Georgians qualified to use marijuana for medical reasons have sat on a list for years without access to legal cannabis oil.
- Controversy over licenses given to in-state marijuana growers has ground Georgia's medical cannabis program to a halt.
- State lawmakers failed to pass legislation this year that would ease licensing delays.
Seven years ago, Georgia opened the door for thousands of people with serious health issues to legally purchase low doses of marijuana oil instead of opioids to help ease their pain.
Now, Georgia’s medical cannabis program has stalled amid a licensing snafu for growers and the state legislature’s failure to resolve delays.
Roughly 23,000 Georgians sit on a state-run registry list to allow them to use marijuana oil for treating severe medical conditions such as cancer, seizures, multiple sclerosis, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
They’ve had permission to take medical cannabis since 2015. But they don’t have a way to get it legally.
Created in 2019, the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission was supposed to have six regulated growing operations up and running by now, advocates say. But the licenses approved last July have been tied up in legal protests from prospective marijuana growers who were denied a license, while legislation aimed at clearing the bottleneck failed in the Georgia Senate last month.
It’s become a debacle for patients and pro-cannabis advocates who were promised access to medical marijuana but whose only options remain using what they view as less-effective CBD and hemp oils – or illegally acquiring more potent products from out-of-state shippers or street dealers.
“Patients are still suffering,” said Yolanda Bennett, co-founder of the nonprofit Georgia Medical Cannabis Society. “Georgia has dropped the ball and failed to provide safe medical cannabis for people.”
Opponents worry that allowing medical cannabis in Georgia could lead to broad marijuana legalization for recreational use – a development many critics say would harm Georgians’ health and safety, particularly that of kids.
“We’re concerned this is a step toward legalizing marijuana for social and recreational purposes,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “Today’s marijuana on the illegal side is many, many times more potent than marijuana of even five years ago.”
Why It Matters
Like a host of chronically ill patients across the country, many Georgians have touted cannabis as the most effective way to treat their own or a loved one’s pain from severe illnesses.
Nora Bushfield’s 43-year-old daughter, Jolie, suffered from seizures since infancy due to a rare form of epilepsy. Decades of treatment with anticonvulsant drugs had little effect, Bushfield said. It wasn’t until Bushfield got a hold of cannabis-infused lollipops in 2015 that Jolie’s seizures drastically dropped to once about every three months or so, Bushfield said.
“Everything we’ve done, except giving her marijuana, has not worked,” Bushfield, a Decatur attorney, said. “If they could figure out the marijuana program here, we’d be the first in line.”
Bennett, of Georgia Medical Cannabis Society, uses cannabis to treat chronic bone pain from several conditions including neuropathy and hypertension. She said the drug helped her cut out a potent regimen of the painkillers her doctor prescribed.
“Once I started using cannabis, I no longer take any type of opioids,” said Bennett, a former corrections officer and truck driver. “It saved my life.”
States that have created medical cannabis programs have seen a nearly 15% reduction in opioid use from 2010 to 2015, according to a 2018 University of Georgia study.
But critics of marijuana fear that opening the window for people to obtain low-THC oils to anyone other than those with the most severe health conditions could pave the road for full-scale recreational legalization.
Ginger Kester, a Buford resident, says that can’t happen.
Kester’s son, Parker, was 19 years old when he died in his college dorm room from a drug overdose. His addiction started with marijuana four years prior and spiraled out of control, leading to his death from ingesting Xanax laced with fentanyl, Kester said.
“We are just playing with fire,” she said. A member of the anti-marijuana group Let’s Get Clear Georgia, Kester added: “I would love [marijuana] to be seen as it truly is, which is an addictive drug that can kill.”
Nearly 2,000 people in Georgia died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to state health data. More than 24,000 were admitted to emergency rooms that year due to overdoses.
It could be another two or three years before Georgia’s medical cannabis program sees the light of day – or even up to seven or eight more years, depending on lawsuits, said Wesley Dunn, a former state lawmaker who chairs the pro-medical cannabis group Safe Access for Everyone.
“Hypothetically, medicine would be on the street today if everything had gone according to plan,” Dunn said. “And it should be on the street today.”
More than a dozen of the nearly 70 businesses that applied for growing licenses filed protests shortly after six licenses were awarded in July, alleging the state cannabis commission ran a faulty selection process that handed some licenses to unqualified growers.
Several bills in this year’s legislative session proposed increasing the number of licenses in Georgia, effectively freeing up enough licenses for many of the protesting growers to nab one. None of the bills cleared the General Assembly before the session ended last month.
The bill closest to passing came from state Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville. It would have upped the license count from six to nine, but it died in the state Senate on the session’s last day. Werkheiser largely blamed election-year politics for the bill’s failure.
“It’s messed up,” Werkheiser said of the licensing process. “I’m really, really frustrated, and I’m sure I’m not near as frustrated as the patients.”
The licensing deadlock could see some relief in the coming months after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed a new chief – Sid Johnson – at the state cannabis commission. Johnson formerly headed up the agency that oversees state contracts.
Advocates say Johnson’s background makes him better equipped to speed up protest hearings and break the licensing gridlock. The previous commission chairman was a surgeon.
Kemp also pumped $150,000 in emergency funds to help clear the protest backlog at the Office of State Administrative Hearings.
Allen Peake, a former state lawmaker and medical marijuana champion, said he receives a monthly shipment of low-THC oil made in a state where production for medical use is legal, then distributes it to Georgians on the state registry.
He doesn’t ask too many questions about how these products end up on his doorstep, since federal law forbids transporting any form of marijuana across state lines. He just knows that it’s helping people cope with their pain in a safe way.
“We know it’s making a difference in people’s lives,” Peake said. “It’s not just the kids with seizures anymore. It’s the soccer mom with cancer. It’s the grandfather with Alzheimer’s. It’s the college kid with Crohn’s disease.”
Know someone struggling with drug addiction? Call the Georgia Crisis and Access Hotline for help at 1-800-715-4225.
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From funeral homes to helicopters and the courtroom: The other side of Georgia legislators
Ever wonder what a politician does when they’re not … well … politicking? So did we.
Georgia’s 236-member General Assembly is a part-time citizen Legislature whose members are paid a salary of $22,342, plus a daily allowance of $247, to work during a 40-day legislative session that runs from January to March. (The salary is in the bottom quartile of legislator compensation in the U.S.)
We wondered what kind of jobs or financial situations Georgia legislators have that enable them to take three months off each year and fit in all of the other meetings, calls and work that the position demands throughout the year.
State Affairs looked at the mostly self-reported information of the 180 House and 56 Senate members.
Topping the list of occupations? Lawyers.
Doctors, medical practitioners and those who are retired (or semi-retired) from a wide range of professions and careers also top the list.
Some surprising findings: This year’s assembly includes a helicopter pilot, an auctioneer, a jewelry store owner and a pontoon boat maker.
— Jill Jordan Sieder
Have thoughts, tips or questions about the compensation or workload of state legislators? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].
Header image: Lawmakers ready to head home on Sine Die at the Georgia House of Representatives in Atlanta. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)
Judicial circuits get $15 million more to pare down big case backlogs
Georgia courts are getting a $15 million injection to help combat case backlogs accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The money will be used to update courtrooms with new audio-visual equipment, cameras, recording devices and other technology.
Nearly half of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits are getting the new round of money, the second and final round of federal American Rescue Act (ARPA) grants slated to be distributed this year. Two of the 24 circuits awarded grants – Flint and Pataula – are first-time recipients. The rest of the money is going to circuits that applied and were approved for more money.
“The bulk of this round of distributions is to modernize courtrooms and things like that,” Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of Georgia/Administrative Office of the Courts, told State Affairs.
For example, according to their backlog response plans, 21 circuits plan to use the money to add newer audio-visual equipment. Approved as a new eligible expenditure by the committee starting this award cycle, over $12 million was requested and awarded to update audio-visual equipment.
Requests also included money for temporary personnel such as senior judges, judges to serve by designation, court clerks, prosecutors, security, investigators, victim support staff and court reporters. There were also requests for supplies, personnel education and training as well as money to rent temporary space to hold court.
“We look forward to the support and efficiencies the audio-visual equipment modernization will provide to move cases faster and without technical delays,” said Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs, chairman of the Judicial Committee.
Why It Matters
Between March 2020 and June 2021, Georgia’s judiciary system operated under a statewide Judicial Emergency Order that placed limits on court operations to protect the health and safety of people working or coming into court during the pandemic. That led to a backlog of criminal and civil cases, especially those requiring jury trials to resolve.
In October 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $110 million in ARPA money to the state’s judicial branch to deal with the backlog, especially serious violent felonies.
The Judicial Council is administering $96 million of that money to eligible courts, prosecutors and related agencies. The remaining $14 million in ARPA money went to the Georgia Public Defender Council for grants to public defenders.
With this latest round of awards, 45 of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits will have received grants since the program began on Jan. 1 , 2022.
Challenges still persist. In addition to the backlog of cases, Boggs said there’s a shortage of attorneys during his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March. And some courts are in need of court reporters.
In addition to dealing with serious felony cases, COVID and court backlogs tied up many civil cases. For example, Atlantans Antonio Fleetwood’s and Lakiela Edwards’ wedding plans were on hold for nearly two years. The couple finally tied the knot in a special Valentine’s Day ceremony at the Fulton County Probate Court.
How successful has the ARPA program been in helping reduce the backlog in Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits? That’s hard to say. There is no statewide clearinghouse, Shaw said, that would give a clear picture of the progress. Or lack of it.
“It’s going to be different in each circuit,” he said. “So a statewide average would be difficult to come by right now.”
State Affairs checked in with Georgia’s 10th Judicial District, which handles civil and domestic cases for 21 counties in northeast Georgia. It has seven circuits and is the third-largest district in the state.
In the first few months of this year, the Augusta Judicial Circuit, the 10th District’s largest circuit, has seen its pending serious violent felonies drop by 37%, District Administrator Tracy J. BeMent told State Affairs.
Alcovy, another circuit in his district, “has done extremely well in prioritizing serious, violent felony trials this past year and has worked down their [cases] quite a bit,” BeMent said.
As of last August, the latest data available, “Alcovy had cleared out 54 serious felonies and was on track to complete almost 49 trial weeks for 2022 amongst their five judges,” Bement added.
In the Toombs circuit, clearance rates are low but they’re prioritizing backlog cases, BeMent said. The Western circuit in Athens continues to have a backlog “as they have a number of cases that have yet to be indicted,” he said.
More work remains to be done.
“The challenge continues to be making sure we have appropriate staff and that we’re fully staffed and that that staff is trained and ready to go,” BeMent said.
The ARPA money has helped add more personnel but it takes time for them to get up to speed, he noted.
So far, the district has received about $8 million in ARPA money, BeMent said, with another $3 million coming from this latest round of ARPA distributions.
Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter recognized The Judicial Council/AOC’s 50th anniversary this year in a Jan. 25 letter. The council was formed while Carter was Georgia governor. The ailing 39th president entered hospice on Feb. 17.
“Now the challenge is considering what is needed from all of you for the next 50 years,” Carter, 98, said in the letter. “What do future generations of judges, lawyers and citizenry need from their judicial branch? What does improving justice look like in the next decade? These are no small questions, but ones I know you will meet with the same spirit that has guided you through the past half-century.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Top image: Inside the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta (Credit: Judge Stephen Dillard)
$69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’
Tammy Joyner and photographer Brandon Franklin hit the road with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) for the Black farms tour. There were so many great pictures, we decided to share the tour with you. Enjoy!
And check out our Q&A with Chairman Carl Gilliard and an agriculture perspective on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget vetoes.
“Make the farm work and serve the community.” — Addis Bugg, Sr., Addis Farm
Joyner and Franklin traveled with the GLBC to several Black-owned farms, including Roberts Vineyard, Addis Bugg Farms, Paul Copeland Farms and Living Waters Farms. They concluded the tour with the “At the Table Roundtable” discussion event with Georgia farmers at Fort Valley State University.
Can you spot the bull?
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: John Deere combine at the state-of-the-art agricultural research facilities at Fort Valley State University. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)
All images and video by Brandon Franklin.
Read more on the ag industry by Tammy Joyner.
Q&A: Even the Energizer Bunny is no match for Carl Gilliard
State Rep. Carl Gilliard has been running at a fast clip for nearly four decades, juggling a ministry, making music and movies, writing books, feeding the hungry, hosting talk shows and performing community activism.
As a teenager, Gilliard founded a local rap group in Savannah to fight gun violence. By the time he was a student at Morris Brown College, the late civil rights activist the Rev. Hosea Williams was his mentor. His activism also put him in the sphere of other influential civil rights icons: the Revs. Joseph Lowery and Ralph Abernathy, and Coretta Scott King.
Gilliard later went on to become a minister himself as well as an author, radio show host and head of a multimedia group that produces documentaries on history. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed the state representative from Garden City to the Georgia Film Commission in 2019.
Gilliard sits on eight legislative committees, including appropriations, creative arts and entertainment, and transportation.
In January, Gilliard ascended to a critical leadership post in the Georgia General Assembly: chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC), the largest caucus of Black lawmakers in the nation.
In that role, Gilliard is determined to get Black farmers solidly entrenched in Georgia’s $69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” the 59-year-old is fond of saying.
Caucus member Sen. Gail Davenport, D-District 44, marveled at Gilliard’s energy. “I don’t know how he gets it all done. He’s busy,” she said. “He has led the caucus very well. He knows South Georgia very well and certainly here in the General Assembly, he has been an effective leader. He works to make sure the Senate understands the position of the House and the House understands the position of the Senate as far as the Democrats are concerned.”
As caucus chairman, Gilliard has made Black farmers and other Black businesses, access to credit, affordable housing and medicine top priorities.
But Black farmers are close to his heart. He recalled years ago when Georgia lawmakers gave millions of dollars to pecan farmers after tornado-ravaged storms damaged their pecan trees.
“We did a bill to give them money. Then we called a special session just to appropriate more money,” said Gilliard, who served on the Appropriations Committee at the time. “Unfortunately, Black farmers were not a part of [getting] that [money].”
State Affairs spoke to Gilliard about his role as chairman, what he intends to do to help Black farmers, and his other top priorities.
How do you see your role as chairman?
As chairman, I’m blessed to be able to walk in the leadership of 74 great senators and representatives from across the state. We represent the melting pot of Georgia.
What has been the biggest takeaway in your first five months as chairman?
Being able to hear from the members and their diverse communities. When we look at the big picture, we have more in common than not in common. That is the reason we did the GLBC rollout in reference to legislation because those are some of the things you hear in communities across the state.
You head the nation’s largest caucus of Black legislators. What are the economic and social issues impacting Black Georgians and how is the caucus poised to address those issues?
The needs of Black Georgians are just like what we went through when the recession hit. Everybody on Wall Street got bailed out while the people on Main Street got left out.
We are constantly playing catch-up. We’ve got to do more: continue education, start more businesses, be able to get a fair share of [state] contracts and be able to deliver services so that we can have generational wealth for future generations.
Black Georgians also have to be included in the top levels of [Georgia’s] $4.4 billion film industry. So the focus is to look at legislation that gives inclusion to levels of opportunity in film.
We must also try to get more Blacks into the business side of film, in reference to the creative opportunities of making and producing films and soundtracks.
Some people feel now that we’re in a post-racial era, there’s no need for a separate caucus for Black legislators. Thoughts?
There will always be a need for a Black caucus in Georgia. There’s always been a need since 1868 with “The Original 33” senators and state representatives who were [initially] not allowed to take office. Fourteen of them were lynched and killed. They had to go through unscrupulous challenges. We still face those challenges when we are in the minority, and we’re trying to get legislation passed for the people who are still facing obstacles. Across the nation, there will always be a need for Black caucuses because of the consensus of the people we represent. We represent over 3 million [Black] people in Georgia.
Who are Georgia’s Black farmers?
When people think about farmers, 99% of the time they just think about those who grow. But you have farmers who have land. You have farmers who have cattle. We even have farmers today [whose business ranges from] cattle to produce to hemp. They just don’t get an opportunity to [publicly] share all that they produce.
Having the resources to upgrade and getting the materials and equipment they need — that’s the biggest need.
They don’t have the workers to help with these farms. And they don’t have the money to hire. They’re just trying to survive. So there has to be a connection to workforce development to help them. The state has workforce development programs that may be able to help some of these farmers. Here again, it’s about us being innovative enough to use what we have to help them.
Have you talked to Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper about your concerns?
Well, we’re going to be talking with the new agriculture commissioner. We’ll give him a chance to get in the door [of his new job] first. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt to say, ‘Let’s meet.’ This will better Georgia because agriculture is the No. 1 entity in Georgia.
What’s the caucus’ next step as it relates to Black farmers?
We’ll push for a bill that would create the Georgia Racial Equity in Agriculture Act. It would establish an Office of Equity in Agriculture, provide training for farmers of color and other historically-underserved farmers and ensure equal distribution of federal aid from the Inflation Reduction Act and Promoting Precision Agriculture Act. And we are gathering information to establish a Georgia Black farmers directory to list all of the farmers who are currently in the state to get them support from consumers as well.
Aside from Black farmers, what are the caucus’ other priorities?
Health care for all Georgians. Looking at the criminal justice system and people who are unfairly on probation for long periods of time when they have a misdemeanor. Some people are still on probation after 20 years. We’ve got to look at different elements of the criminal justice system to see what is fair and what needs to be updated.
We need to make sure we have a fair shake in the minority participation of state contracts. If we’re 30% of the population, then those contracts need to look like the representation of the 30% of minorities in Georgia.
What are some of the events the caucus has planned?
On June 7, we have the Young Leaders Conference at the Capitol for high school and college students. The caucus’ annual conference will be in Savannah July 21 to 23 and we have several for-the-people rallies coming up in Athens, Augusta, Macon and Valdosta. Lastly, we have a Black university tour the first week of September at several Black universities in Georgia.
The Carl Wayne Gilliard File
- Title: Chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus; Democratic state representative, District 162 (Savannah)
- Age: 59
- Hometown: Savannah
- Residence: Garden City
- Occupation: Pastor of Family Life Center in Garden City which operates the Empowerment Center, a program that “gets people on their feet and helps them with everything from housing to credit.” He also has a nonprofit, Feed the Hungry, that has distributed about 1.5 million servings of food in 10 cities in Georgia and four in South Carolina.
- Education: Graduate of Morris Brown College; Doctrine of Divinity from the New Generation School of Seminary.
- Career: While in college, worked as the national youth coordinator for then-presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Became a minister in 1995. Sworn in to the Georgia House of Representatives on May 5, 2016.
- Accomplishments: In the mid-1980s, he founded the Savannah-based rap group Candy Love to combat gun violence. Creator of four national gospel plays. Host of a radio talk show in Savannah as well as gospel TV shows. Founder of Feed the Hungry Inc. in 2009. In 2012, he launched a multimedia communication company called Urban Media and the Gilliard Foundation, which produce documentaries and television specials on history. Author of an upcoming book “Power of the Pen.”
- Family: Married father of four daughters
- What do you do to relax: Watch sports. I am a writer and a filmmaker who does documentaries.
- What’s your ultimate dream? Having a farm.
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: State Rep. Carl Gilliard touring Bugg Farm in Pine Mountain, GA. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)