LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks to David Bradford of the University of Georgia about the state's medical cannabis law.

Medical cannabis oil

A bottle of medical cannabis oil and a cannabis plant.

The first two medical cannabis dispensaries in Georgia opened last week in Macon and Marietta. More stores are planned for Columbus, Newnan and Pooler. And this comes eight years after state lawmakers first moved to legalize medical cannabis. Georgia is one of the last states in the nation to make this change. For a look at where the state's cannabis policy has been over the years and where it's going, we turn to David Bradford, professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia. He's been studying cannabis policy. He spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: So let's talk a little bit about the timeline of the legislation that the state has seen recently. State lawmakers legalized medical cannabis eight years ago, but not the sale of it. So what's happened in the intervening years that made lawmakers take those extra steps to get it to market?

David Bradford: Well, I think that that there always was the intention to not only legalize possession of these — this low-THC cannabis oil, but also make it available to the patients in the state who need it for medical purposes. It was just a process that took a little time. In addition, the very first legislation that approved the possession of this low-THC oil had a much more limited set of medical conditions it was approved for. That has subsequently been expanded. So as in many states, there can be quite a bit of time between the first passage of the first law that authorizes some access for cannabis and a functioning market. Now, Georgia took a lot longer than most states, but that it took a number of years is very typical.

Peter Biello: We're talking about low-THC products like cannabis oil, tinctures and capsules. The flower that people sometimes smoke is still illegal, but the state made the decision to allow low-THC products. So tell us the difference between THC and the other substance, CBD.

David Bradford: THC is the cannabinoid that does have medical benefits, the evidence suggests, but it's also the one that gives you the feeling of euphoria, the sense of being high. CBD does not do that. That's primarily an anti-inflammatory and seems to be the — the primary cannabinoid that's helpful for seizure disorders. And so when — the reason that we have low THC oil in the state is that the hope is, of course it would be less likely to be abused; less than 5% THC by volume. If you were to go up to Washington or Colorado — say Colorado, a very active retail, recreational legal market — the typical THC levels, there are going to be 20-25% by volume. And so we're talking about below 5%. However, it's also important to put in context[ ...]but if your listener thinks back to the 1970s, illegal marijuana that you might buy on the street there had THC levels of 2 or 3%. So even though this is relatively low THC levels, it's still something that people need to be pay attention to. It is still potentially intoxicating and it's still something that I do think Georgia's right to take careful steps to roll out because it's — just to say it's low-THC is not the same thing to say it's no THC.

Peter Biello:  Doctors don't prescribe cannabis, though. They they have another process that the state has laid out. What is that process?

David Bradford: What physicians do is they fill out forms here in Georgia and in other states that certify that their patient has certain medical conditions. And so here in Georgia, there's a — there's a fairly long list seizure disorders, pain, nausea, cancer, a range of conditions. And what a patient would do is take forms that are provided by the Georgia [Medical Cannabis] Access Commission and have the doctor fill them out. And then the patient would present that to the state and get a cannabis access card. And then they'd be able to go to a dispensary and buy the product.

Peter Biello: State law now allows up to 30 licenses for retailers. Two stores opened last week. There's more to come soon. What's on the horizon for those companies who have licenses or are hoping to get one?

David Bradford: Well, what's on the horizon, of course, is that they've got to have a strategy for themselves that allows them to grow at an appreciable rate. They've got to have enough patients coming in the door to support them. And right now, the last estimate I saw was there's only about 28,000 patients with medical cannabis cards in Georgia. That's actually not a lot of people to support a wide, large number of stores. And so we don't want to move so fast with expanding outlets that they're not profitable and that creates its own set of problems.

Peter Biello: Let's talk taxes, because it seems like sales tax does apply to medical cannabis. Does the state have any plans for that money?

David Bradford: As far as I know, there are no plans. I have not seen any discussion of that myself. Now, this is not an area that I do my own research on. I will say that other states do have plans for their cannabis taxes, whether it's medical cannabis taxes or recreational cannabis in states like Washington and Colorado that have legal adult access. And oftentimes the tax rates are different for medical versus recreational cannabis. And in many states, the tax revenue will go explicitly to setting up the infrastructure to monitor and manage the medical or recreational cannabis program. It's expensive for the states to create agencies and infrastructure to do that. Taxes may be earmarked for education. Sometimes taxes are even earmarked for substance use treatment. But I'm not familiar — I'm not aware that Georgia has made that decision.