Medical marijuana in limbo for thousands of severely ill Georgians

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

May 04, 2022
Key Points
  • 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.

The Gist

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.

What’s Happening

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.

Medical marijuana infographic
The road to accessing medical cannabis for around 23,000 Georgians with qualified needs has been long and winding – and still not finished – since it began in 2015. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

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.”

Yolanda Bennett co-founded the pro-medical marijuana group Georgia Medical Cannabis Society in Austell. (Credit: Georgia Medical Cannabis Society)

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.”

Nora Bushfield's daughter Jolie (pictured) has suffered seizures all her life. Only cannabis-based treatments have helped reduce how often she has a seizure, her mother says. (Credit: Nora Bushfield)

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.

Ginger Kester's son, Parker, is pictured here in 2014. Parker died from a drug overdose in 2015 after years in which his mother said he struggled with addiction that began with using marijuana in the 9th grade. (Credit: Ginger Kester)

License gridlock

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.

State Rep. Bill Werkheiser (top left) checks his phone in the Georgia House of Representatives during the final moments of the 2022 legislative session, around when his bill on medical cannabis licenses failed in the Georgia Senate on April 5, 2022. (Credit: Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon for State Affairs)

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.”

What’s Next?

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 architect of Georgia's medical cannabis program, meets with Haleigh Cox at Children's Hospital of Atlanta in 2014. Haleigh, who suffers from severe seizures due to epilepsy, inspired Peake and other Georgia lawmakers to set up the state's low-THC oil registry in 2015. (Credit: Allen Peake)

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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