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Families willing to break law to acquire medical marijuana
Mothers not waiting on further changes in cannabis oil laws
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Fran Bennett, Katie Harrison, Hawk Harrison and Ava Fowler play with chickens outside the Harrisons Gillsville home Thursday evening. Hawk and Ava both use cannabis oil to treat their seizures. - photo by ERIN SMITH / Gainesville Times

GAINESVILLE - Civil disobedience is as American as baseball, but the writer Henry David Thoreau could never have imagined what issues would inspire such symbolic acts come the 21st century.

For example, Georgia parents who treat their children with cannabis oil to manage seizures, including several in Hall County and Northeast Georgia, are publicly stating that they are willing to break the law, if necessary, to acquire cannabis oil.

It’s the latest fault line in the medical marijuana fight, pitting patients and their families against law enforcement.

When state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, admitted in January that he had potentially broken federal law by transporting cannabis oil across state lines, he was both lauded and criticized.

Gov. Nathan Deal, for instance, implied that Peake should be ready and willing to face arrest.

And, indeed, an act of civil disobedience often comes with the expectation of arrest.

But the enduring lesson of civil disobedience, at least from the perspective of activists, is that the laws they are protesting should never have been on the books in the first place.

Georgia lawmakers approved the use of cannabis oil last year to treat eight medical conditions, including seizure disorders in children. The drug is known to have anti-anxiety effects, among other beneficial properties.

But with no manufacturing and distribution of the drug within Georgia, some patients and their families said they have been forced to break federal and state laws by acquiring the drug in places like California and transporting it back.

They are speaking out now about the risks they take for the rewards of a drug that has given their family a renewed sense of life and purpose.

“I think it’s really important for parents to step up and say they are using it,” said Sarabeth Fowler, a Clarkesville resident who uses cannabis oil to treat epilepsy in her 9-year-old daughter, Ava.

Fowler, like the testaments of others, said that Ava’s cognition has improved, she is more social and aware of her surroundings, and ultimately a happier child.

In Georgia, however, local law enforcement, including sheriffs and district attorneys at the county level, have thrown up caution flags.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, for example, is heeding these warnings, saying cultivation and distribution of cannabis oil could open a slippery slope to legalized recreational use of marijuana in Georgia.

Advocates dispute this “Trojan horse” argument, explaining that the cannabis oil they use does not have enough of the psychoactive ingredient (THC) found in the marijuana bud to get a user intoxicated.

But Miller told The Times last month that he believes the federal government needs to act to reclassify and decriminalize marijuana before the state can move toward a growth and distribution model for cannabis oil.

Though marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under federal law (the same designation given to narcotics like heroin), the Department of Justice has not stopped the expansion of medical marijuana in about half the states.

Nor have federal law enforcement officials clamped down on legalized recreational use in Colorado, Washington state or Oregon.

And local mothers like Katie Harrison of Gillsville, who treats her 3-year-old son, Hawk, with several different strains of cannabis oil, are not waiting around for officials to get on board.

Harrison receives some of the cannabis oil she uses through the mail. It is shipped as an agricultural hemp product to circumvent prohibitions.

Other strains, however, have higher THC counts, though do not give off a high, and cannot be shipped.

They have proven effective, Harrison said, particularly as a “rescue medication” when and if seizures become unmanageable.

Cannabis oil strains can be likened to antidepressants: Different kinds at different dosages work differently from one patient to the next.

Advocates had hoped a bill that would legalize the use of a strain known as THCa, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, would pass in Georgia this year. But that effort appears stalled as the legislature enters its final week of the 2016 session.

Harrison said she is already using THCa for Hawk, and vows to continue acquiring it herself in Colorado and transporting it back to the Peach State — regardless of the consequences.

Harrison said cannabis oil has lifted her son out of the “zombie fog” that blurred his cognition, appetite and social interaction.

Recently, Harrison noticed Hawk exhibiting an emotion she had never seen in him before: bashfulness.

Harrison said she dressed Hawk in old-man clothes one day as part of a school event.

He was grumpy all morning in his strange, new digs, Harrison said, but when Hawk started receiving compliments from those at school, he grew shy and a little red-faced, snuggling his nose into his mother’s neck.

“He knew something was different,” Harrison said. “He just lit up.”

Fowler said she, too, is willing to do whatever it takes to care for her daughter.

Fowler described herself as an “extreme rule follower.” She said that even in an empty parking lot, she would follow the directional lane signs between spaces, for example.

But the efficacy of cannabis oil, which Fowler said has brought out her daughter’s sassy, lovable personality, has the local mother reconsidering her decision to play by the book when it comes to acquiring the drug.

“Had I known a year ago how well it works (before the state legislature even approved its use for seizures) ... I would have absolutely broken the rules to get it,” Fowler said.