Image of Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald Georgia Dept. of Public Health

Maggie Lee ~ The Telegraph ~

ATLANTA -- A few hours before Georgia’s medical cannabis registry opened Tuesday morning, the legislator who created it cursed the federal prohibition that makes it necessary.

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“Congress needs to change the damn law,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, a rather polite lawmaker whose quest to plant medical cannabis in Georgia has driven him to use four-letter words.

Federal law bans cannabis and everything made from it, and carrying it across state lines constitutes smuggling.

But Peake wants people who have very serious illnesses to be able to take medicine derived from specially bred cannabis plants.

The new Georgia registry does not give anyone a way to make, sell or buy medical cannabis. It simply shields them from Georgia prosecution if they possess a kind of liquid medical cannabis under some very tight rules.

How they get it remains a gray area under the cloud of federal law. Peake fears it makes smugglers out of people who cross state lines to get liquid cannabis.

A would-be Georgia patient must start an application for a medical cannabis card with a doctor. Eight diagnoses are eligible: seizure disorders, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease or severe or end-stage cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or sickle cell disease.

“This is often a substance used when other substances have failed,” said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, which manages the registry.

Patients will sign a form acknowledging that what they want to take does not have federal approval.

Registered patients will be limited to having a maximum of 20 fluid ounces -- 2.5 cups -- of the liquid at any given time, and it can’t be strong enough to attract a would-be recreational user. It must be low in THC, the chemical that causes marijuana smokers to get a buzz. It must be relatively rich in cannabidiol, or CBD, a cannabis compound that some people report relieves pain and seizures.

The Department of Public Health has sent letters to doctors statewide explaining how to register, Fitzgerald said. From the time a doctor makes a recommendation for medical cannabis to the time a patient picks up a card will be 15 or fewer business days, she said. The cards will be distributed at 18 county health departments statewide, including Bibb County’s.

It’s not clear when an overhaul might come from Congress.

States have a right under the U.S. Constitution to legalize and regulate medical cannabis, said Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access, a national medical cannabis lobbying group.

The federal government has been moving toward recognizing that right, Liszewski said Tuesday at a public hearing on medical cannabis, of which Peake served as chairman.

Congress already has barred the U.S. Department of Justice from spending money to crack down on states’ medical cannabis programs.

Federal prosecutions of legal state medical cannabis operations have become rare, Liszewski said.

The only time the feds have gone after legal medical cannabis users themselves is when they have been cultivating their own plants, he said.

Both he and Peake said legal medical cannabis users run very little practical risk of federal prosecution for possession.

But Peake would settle for medical cannabis sprouting in Georgia greenhouses for the state’s ailing residents.

“I’m not anticipating Congress will act” on a big overhaul, he said.

So instead, Minnesota is one of his states where a handful of state licensees grow, manufacture and are preparing to sell liquid medical cannabis.

But there will be no smoking, no whole plants and no recreational use.

Peake drafted a bill for the state Legislature in January that was similar, based on the work of a public study committee he co-chaired in 2015.

But to get the necessary support from Gov. Nathan Deal, in-state grow will have to wait until next year at the earliest.

In the coming months, Peake will call further public meetings of the Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis. The committee of lawmakers, law enforcement, attorneys, doctors and state leaders is working on in-state grow recommendations for the Legislature.

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