For medical use only

Georgia’s legislators pass highly anticipated bill


Brant Sanderlin / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Governor Nathan Deal signs House Bill 1 into law surrounded by supporters of medical cannabis. He waited to sign the bill until the end of the legislative session to ensure its passing. Haleigh Cox was issued Georgia’s first medical marijuana card at the signing.

Alia Carlton

On April 16th, Governor Nathan Deal brought the state of Georgia into a new era – the era of medical marijuana.

The legalization of medical cannabis is a long process with many roadblocks. To the relief of Georgia’s activists, House Bill 1 passed with a standing ovation at the state capitol.

The bill legalizes the medical use of cannabis oil containing no more than 5% THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes the high.

Under the new legislation, cannabis oil can treat eight medical conditions including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and seizures, among others.

The day of the House vote on the bill brought a family’s long journey to a near close.

Janea Cox’s eyes brimmed with tears as green “Y’s” filled the voting board at the Georgia State Capitol. To her, green meant that her daughter Haleigh could soon be treated for her debilitating seizures. She experiences over 100 seizures each day.

The bill is also known as “Haleigh’s Hope Act” due to the family’s participation in pushing the bill forward and raising awareness for medical marijuana in Georgia.

The family moved to Colorado in 2014 to make the process of attaining legal medical cannabis easier.

“We were told she might live maybe two to three more months,” Janea said to WMAZ. “I definitely know cannabis oil saved her life. Colorado saved her life.”

The family came back to Georgia to vote on medical cannabis legislation. With the Governor’s signing of the bill, Janea and Haleigh can return home full-time to reunite with Haleigh’s father who stayed in Georgia to work.

“It means a lot, because we’ll be able to be a family again,” Janea said to Macon news station WMAZ.

Haleigh affected the development of the bill, which included visiting the capitol to meet legislators.

Margaret Kaiser was among the representatives who met with the Cox family. According to her, like other families who move to Colorado for medical cannabis, the Cox’s are referred to as “refugees.” Kaiser co-sponsored the bill.

Kaiser’s passion for the issue of medical cannabis spans years, but she knew that if she authored a bill, it would be hard to pass.

“I serve in a super minority,” she said. “Out of 180 house members, only 60 of us are Democrats.”

When Republican Rep. Allen Peake authored a medical cannabis bill last year, Kaiser was one of the first to jump on board.

“I told him it was something that I was very passionate about, and I was thrilled that a Republican was interested in carrying the bill,” she said. “I know the environment where I serve, and a Democrat wasn’t going to get a broad medical cannabis bill through.”

According to Kaiser, the bill was a fantastic opportunity for bipartisanship, given the strong involvement from both political parties.

The original bill only covered children with seizure disorders and didn’t pass through the state Senate.

After the bill was quashed, Peake and Kaiser joined a medical cannabis study committee.

“We spent the summer traveling the state and listening to people,” she said.

Kaiser said that Peake originally took a very narrow approach when discussing the bill. He said that “it would never be broadened” past covering children.

“I think he was trying to be careful, particularly as a Republican,” she said. “What ended up happening as a result of the study was that we met people with the gamut of illnesses that can be helped by medical cannabis.”

After meeting those whose lives could improve with new legislation, Peake broadened the bill to include adults. The new bill also included various other illnesses and cultivation of medical marijuana.

The finalized version of the bill doesn’t allow growing marijuana, and bringing the drug across state lines is still illegal. Because of this, accessibility will continue to be an issue even after medical cannabis cards are distributed.

Some are trying to make the process of obtaining the drug easier.

Daniel Macris is the CEO of Halcyon Organics, the first medical marijuana dispensary in the southeast. According to Macris, founding the Atlanta business was a risky move.

“We pretty much started out how anyone in this industry does – doing it illegally because there’s no other option,” Macris said.

Macris wanted to help not just people in California, where he already established a legal medical cannabis business, but his “own neighbors” as well. After solidifying a strong patient base, Halcyon Organics confronted the illegality of their business.

“We basically just put a press release out that says that we’re gonna do this and if the state wants to arrest us, go for it,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’re gonna be able to say how we’ve saved people’s lives.”

The outcome of this controversial decision surprised Macris.

“Instead of getting our doors kicked in by the police, we actually got contacted by some state legislators asking if we could help guide them through the process [of writing a medical cannabis  bill],” he said.

Representatives contacted the company during last year’s house and senate session, when Georgia almost passed a medical cannabis bill that later fell through. According to Macris, this year’s bill is much better because of the changes made by Peake.

Halcyon Organics stopped operating their business “illegally” when state legislators contacted them to ask for their help.

“We can’t help anybody if we’re paying for lawyers, so we just have to play by the rules,” Macris said.

Macris believes that medical cannabis will benefit Georgia incredibly.

“Legalizing and regulating medical cannabis is both the compassionate and economically responsible thing to do,” he said.

The new legislation is a huge step according to Kaiser, however; there are still improvements that legislators hope to make in the coming years.

Peake already declared that a bill supporting cultivation of medical marijuana will be a primary part of his political platform next House session. Kaiser, running for mayor of Atlanta in 2016, hopes to raise more awareness for medical cannabis. They both hope to bring our “refugees” home.