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Medical cannabis bill closer to passing General Assembly
ATLANTA — A bill that seeks to fix the problems that have long plagued Georgia’s medical marijuana program is a step closer to passing the General Assembly.
The state Senate voted 53-3 in favor of legislation the House passed earlier this month, but with a series of substantive changes that will force it to return to the House before it can gain final passage.
The state commission that runs the program was created back in 2019. But it took the agency until last year to award the first two licenses to companies to grow marijuana in Georgia and convert the leafy crop to low-THC cannabis oil for patients suffering from a range of diseases.
“It took us years and year for the commission to get organized, get its rules together … and award licenses,” Senate Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, told his Senate colleagues Monday. “All that time, the frustration has boiled.”
The awarding of licenses hasn’t ended the difficulty in getting the program off the ground. Four additional licenses beyond the first two are being held up by lawsuits filed by nine companies that lost bids for those licenses and are challenging the procurement process as legally flawed.
As passed by the House, the bill sought to move the program forward by expanding the number of licenses from six to 15, which would have allowed the nine protesters to compete for licenses if they agreed to drop their lawsuits.
But the Senate committee balked at the idea of rewarding those companies for filing lawsuits when other losing bidders did not take their cases to court.
Senators became convinced that expanding the number of licenses isn’t necessary at this time because each of the two companies already licensed have given assurances they can supply enough cannabis oil to treat 300,000 patients, while the state’s registry of patients eligible for the drug numbers fewer than 30,000.
The Senate version of the bill includes triggers for increasing the number of licenses the state awards as the number of patients on the registry grows.
“It takes a little bit of the politics out of it and gets it into a common-sense bracket,” said Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, who chaired a legislative study committee on medical cannabis in 2018.
The Senate also added a provision to the legislation calling on the Georgia Department of Agriculture to examine how the medical cannabis commission has handled its oversight duties and make recommendations by Dec. 1. The commission has absorbed the brunt of the criticism for the delays to the program.