FORSYTH COUNTY — The Baggarly family of Forsyth County watched eagerly as House Bill 885 weaved its way through political limbo during the 2014 Georgia General Assembly.
There were ups and downs, but politics prevailed in the end and the bill was defeated.
For the Baggarlys and many other Georgia families, the measure represented more than just a new law. It was hope. Hope that their children could have some normalcy in life. Hope the daily seizures would stop. Hope realized by children with similar situations in states such as Colorado, where marijuana is legal.
The bill didn’t aim to legalize the drug, not even for medicinal purposes, in Georgia. Instead, it would have allowed cannabis oil to be given to epilepsy patients in Georgia.
Authored by District 141 state Rep. Allen Peake, the measure’s focus was so narrow it did something Kristi Baggarly never imagined — it cleared the House of Representatives in a 171-4 vote.
“When we first started lobbying, people told us this wouldn’t happen in Georgia,” she said. “To get the votes we got, we considered it a miracle ... it’s just a shame the way the bill was killed.”
It was a difficult blow to Baggarly, who had been reaching out to lawmakers and working with others to help her 3-year-old daughter, Kendle, who suffers from intractable seizures.
“It’s a very hard form of epilepsy to treat. We actually have some friends who moved to Colorado and their daughter is taking Charlotte’s Web,” she said of a special cannabis created for epilepsy.
“She’s been showing some great success with it. Her seizures have been reduced by more than 50 percent. She’s reaching therapy goals in two months that they worked on for two years to achieve.”
The Baggarly was hoping for that same outcome for her daughter, who is also developmentally delayed, something else she maintains cannabis oil could address. The side effects of the oil, she said, are good ones. They help children develop and have more cognitive awareness.
At age 3, her daughter has started walking, but can’t follow directions or communicate well. If her condition worsens, the family, including husband Wade and the couple’s other daughters, 5-year-old Annie Lynn and newborn Kimber, have a back-up plan. They would move to a state that would allow Kendle Baggarly access to cannabis oil.
But the family is optimistic that next legislative session may be different, particularly since there was such overwhelming support for the cannabis oil bill until an autism funding measure was tacked onto it at the last minute.
There was much back and forth between the House and Senate, as well as shifting of the bills from one chamber to another, a fairly common late-session practice.
It all played out while Baggarly sat in the gallery on the last day of the session as District 45 state Sen. Renee Unterman “admittedly held our bill hostage.”
“I was devastated as I watched her let it die simply because she could not get her own piece of legislation passed for autism,” Baggarly said. “While I fully support autism [measure], these are two very separate issues and should have stood alone.
“Due to Senator Unterman's gamesmanship, children will die as they have currently run out of treatment options. Cannabis oil could have provided new hope for them as it has for the namesake of our bill, Haleigh Cox.”
Gov. Nathan Deal has spoken in support of the measure.
Brian Robinson with the governor’s communication office, said Deal “has said if there’s a way we can relieve the suffering that these children face every day, we should seek out a way to do that. We’re looking for a means to do that.”
While Robinson said it’s too early and too complicated of an issue to attach a timeline, they “hope to find a solution.”
Baggarly said she hopes something will be done this year, or next session, even if it’s just to grant immunity to families who bring in the oil from other states that have legalized it. It’s something she’s considered in the past, “but we have DFCS to worry about.”
She said she’s afraid if the Division of Family and Children Services learns her daughter was on medications not legal in Georgia, she’d risk losing all of her children.
“Nobody has a precedent on how to handle this. And it’s not worth losing all three of my kids over it,” she said. “I’m not helping anybody if I’m losing all three of my children.
For right now, the Baggarly family will stay in Forsyth and continue to fight for a measure that could give access to the oil to all children who suffer from epilepsy.
Unlike many other families, “We’re not in a life-or-death situation right now, fortunately,” she said. “Kendle is just going to stay Kendle ... and we’re going to keep increasing awareness to keep this issue alive.”