Medical Cannabis in Georgia 101

By: Lori B. Gaylor, PA-C, MPAS, DFAAPA

Cannabis is not new to Georgia – it has existed in many forms here (and worldwide) for centuries. What is new to Georgia, is LEGAL Medical Cannabis. Low THC oil was made legal in Georgia in 2015 by then Governor Deal. This law legalized the possession of limited amounts of Low THC oil for medicinal use by patients with a medical cannabis card and outlined a list of conditions these cards would include. This law was known as Haleigh’s Hope, named after Haleigh Cox, a little girl from Forsyth, Georgia, with a rare disorder known as Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, which can cause over 200 seizures a day(!). Haleigh’s mom had found a medicine made from cannabis that would decrease her seizures to less than two or three a week. The only problem with this medicine is that even though it is legal to possess and use it for her daughter, there is nowhere in Georgia to legally purchase it. Patients who use medical cannabis in Georgia must currently go outside of the state to obtain their medicine, breaking federal law by transporting across state lines. This left them vulnerable to federal prosecution as a felon, risking losing custody of the very child they are working so hard to help. Some parents simply packed up and moved their families, but some had to stay put, here in Georgia, to keep insurance coverage and work benefits in place.

State Representative Allen Peake then stepped in and volunteered his time, money, and resources, to operate what came to be known as the State Capitol Drug Ring. The medicinal oil that was needed for these patients in Georgia would mysteriously appear on the doorstep of Rep Peake’s office at the Capitol (there was nothing illegal about the medicine being there in legal quantities), and it would then be distributed by moms in minivans in parking lots for other moms whose children needed the medicine. Donations were made to companies in Colorado doing research on these medicines, and this worked for years. Now that Rep Peake has retired, he continues to distribute cannabis oil from his home in Macon, but only to those who legally can receive it. He worked hard as a legislator to get the new cannabis law passed, and to enable Georgia families to receive medicine legally here in Georgia, by Georgia cultivators, and his hard work has paid off.

In 2020 Governor Brian Kemp signed into effect House Bill 324. It allows for a new limited cannabis industry in Georgia and outlines how the medicine may be cultivated and distributed. Nearly 70 applications were submitted in January of 2021 for the six cultivation licenses available. Licenses are currently under review and should be awarded in May or June of 2021, making this medicine available for patients legally here at home in Georgia. There is no smoking or vaping allowed, and no edibles. Only Low THC oil will be legal. Low THC oil in Georgia is oil that contains less than 5% THC, the most potent psychoactive component of cannabis. This can be given as oral drops, tincture, or in a capsule. There is a list of conditions that allow the use of Low THC oil in Georgia legally, and no more than 20 ounces of oil may be in a patient’s possession at a time. This will be a highly regulated industry, and medicine will be tracked in a database similar to the way scheduled substances are followed currently. We want the safest, best medicine for our patients, under pristine conditions, grown, measured, and consistent in dosing, as medicine should be. Our regulators and the Georgia Medical Cannabis Commission are working hard to make sure this is exactly what happens.

Senate Bill 195 was approved by the Georgia General Assembly late in March of 2021 and it is currently (as of the date of this article) with the governor, awaiting his signature. This bill essentially cleans up details of HB 324 and provides for the means to dispense low THC oil to patients, to include home delivery. Once licenses are awarded, cultivators have one year to produce medicine and have it ready for dispensing.

Currently, there are nearly 17,000 patients in Georgia with a medical cannabis card, officially known as a “Low THC Oil Registry Card”. This card is obtained through the Department of Public Health – yes, your local Public Health Department – for $25, valid for two years.  The process for a patient and their medical provider is simple and does not ask for a prescription, only certification that the eligible medical condition is present. This does not violate any state or federal laws and there is protection for this in Georgia law. A link to the FAQ page for medical providers is at the end of this post.

Whether you are for or against medical cannabis, it is hard to deny the improvement in quality of life for patients when used correctly. Additionally – An article published in 2020 out of Columbia University showed a 20% decrease in opioid prescriptions by orthopedic surgeons in states with medical cannabis laws and a JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) article in 2018 showed a decreased rate of opioid prescriptions in Medicaid patients in states with medical and adult use cannabis laws. With opioid use and deaths on the rise, the potential for cannabis to be used as a nonopioid alternative is exciting. And now it will be available in Georgia – grown by Georgians for Georgians.

*The following conditions and diseases currently qualify for the Low THC Oil Registry in Georgia: Cancer, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Seizure disorders related to diagnosis of epilepsy or trauma related head injuries, Multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease, Sickle cell disease, Tourette’s syndrome, Autism spectrum disorder, Epidermolysis bullosa, Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, Peripheral neuropathy, Hospice patient, either as inpatient or outpatient, Intractable pain, Post-traumatic stress disorder, and soon Ulcerative Colitis.

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