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Monday, January 27, 2014 - 1:23pm

Medical Marijuana, Medicaid Protest Animate Capitol

Medical news appears to be at the forefront of Georgia’s 2014 Legislative session. On Monday alone, protesters staged an event outside of Gov. Nathan Deal’s office to press for Medicaid expansion while sponsors of a medical marijuana bill received the endorsement of the Medical Association of Georgia.

Let’s start with the medical marijuana bill, which will drop Tuesday.

There are two pieces of legislation getting bi-partisan support, but as Claire Simms reports for GPB’s On The Story, inside the Capitol, lawmakers are all over the map on the idea.

“I know there has been a lot of attention paid to the issue,” House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told GPB. “I’ve said that it’s an issue that we really sort of need to take the politics out of.”

Senator Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican, filed a bill to set up a medical marijuana study committee. He told GPB he wants to know about the science behind the push for using marijuana as part of medical treatments.

No Pot Shops In Georgia

“What medical research has been done?” he asks. “And frankly, you know, the 20 other states that have some kind of law on the books regarding the subject, what has their experience been like?”

The committee his bill aims to establish would make policy recommendations next session.

But this session, Republican Representative Allen Peake of Macon is sponsoring a bill to legalize medical use for Georgians suffering with seizure disorders. He plans to officially file the bill Tuesday.

Peake cautions if the bill passes – something he likens to a miracle at this point – Georgians “won’t see pot shops on every corner.” He says access to cannabis oil – not actual marijuana – would be tightly controlled through the network of Georgia’s medical research centers, including Georgia Regents University in Augusta. There would be no licensed growers in Georgia. And the bill would place a premium on research as a way of verifying that marijuana has medicinal powers.

House speaker Ralston says while he doesn’t support Peake’s bill outright, he does think the issue is worthy of discussion.

Georgia’s Doctors Back Medical Marijuana Bill

Peake called the news Monday of support from the Medical Association of Georgia a “game-changer.” He said he heard a lot of misgivings from conservative colleagues because they didn’t know where the medical community stood on the issue.

“It’s tightly restricted, well-regulated, managed by doctors, limited in scope to just a cannabidiol oil that’s applied orally,” Peake said in an interview. “And so I think that will give comfort to my colleagues and the people of Georgia that this is not going to allow six-year-olds to be smoking a joint on the street corner.”

Accompanying Peake Monday at the Capitol was Dr. James Smith, a Gwinnett County physician. He’s part of MAG’s leadership, and unfortunately, someone who has had a first-hand view of the drug’s potential to help. His 7-year-old daughter has developed a seizure disorder called Doose syndrome. And he says all of the treatments his family has tried have devastating side effects. All, except the cannabis oil, also known by the name cannabidiol oil.

He said Georgia’s approach, under the bill Peake is proposing, would be extremely conservative.

“When I first started investigating this, the more I learned the more I realized how restrictive it is,” he said. “If you treat just with the oil, you don’t get the THC concentration that causes the psychotropic effect that you think of with lighting up a joint. What’s out there, albeit some of it anecdotal, is pretty miraculous.”

For more coverage of the medical marijuana bill and all the pros and cons, tune into GPB’s On The Story on Tuesday, Jan. 28 for a panel discussion featuring Dr. Smith, Rep. Peake, and Janea Cox (whose daughter inspired the bill).

Because You Can’t, You Won’t And You Don’t Stop

The legislative session continues to move at a clip. And Tuesday at the Capitol will be yet another day chock full of activity.

More than 1,000 charter school students are expected to descend upon Atlanta for a rally at the Capitol in honor of School Choice Week.

And Rep. Jason Spencer, a Woodbine Republican, will be holding a press conference to push bills that would undermine the Affordable Care Act. He’ll be presenting a petition with over 37,000 signatures in support of his legislation, which would bar state employees and agencies from enforcing and implementing the federal healthcare law.

Spencer and his supporters are on the other side of the issue from the folks who staged the protest Monday afternoon at the Capitol. They’re part of Moral Mondays, a weekly protest organized by Sen. Vincent Fort aimed at convincing Gov. Deal to expand Medicaid for the 650,000 Georgians who don’t have health insurance.

The Atlanta Democrat slipped something special into Monday’s protest: a sit-in inside and outside of Deal’s office.

There were songs, there were chants, there was filming (the protesters filmed the state troopers guarding Deal’s office door and the troopers filmed them back). There were even arrests. Ten people, including Fort, were arrested for refusing to leave Deal's office.

With the troopers on one side and the protesters on the other, for a moment, the spirit of the 1960s was alive.

In case you forgot, Georgia could expand Medicaid under the ACA and the federal government would foot the bill for the new enrollees in the beginning. But Deal and others worry that eventually the federal government will close the coffers and leave Georgia on the hook to pay for all of the new Medicaid recipients.

On the first day of the session, I said, “Don’t blink,” because the session will be motoring by. But maybe I should add “don’t rest.” It would appear the session will contain the same amount of activity, horse-trading and bill-vetting as normal – just in two months instead of three. Stay tuned.


Claire Simms