As state legislators ponder new rules for growing and distributing medical marijuana products in Georgia, a group from Forsyth County is leading the charge.
County residents Justin Hawkins, who has a background in biopharmaceutical sales, and Dr. Scott Cooper, a neurologist at Northside Hospital, have formed Compass Neuroceutical, an advocacy group pushing for approval of House Bill 324, which would allow production of, manufacturing and dispensing of low-THC [the active ingredient in cannabis plants] oils.
“When people say medical marijuana that can mean 800 different things. That can be edibles, topical, smokable flower. Medical marijuana is not really what we’re talking about,” Hawkins said. “We’re talking about a very specific program called low-THC oil.”
Cooper said under the current rules, patients can be prescribed and possess oils of less than 5 percent THC concentration and amounting to less than 20 ounces a month “but it is illegal to cultivate it in this state and it’s illegal to transport it across state lines.”
“Basically, you can’t get it, but if you do get it we won’t arrest you, and there seems to be some hypocrisy there,” Cooper said. “I had a lot of patients that I saw were getting it illegally and they were benefitting from it.”
Along with fixing the loophole allowing customers to legally possess but not legally obtain the oil, Cooper said it would also give customers the ability to know more information about the oils they are using.
“The problem I have is they don’t know what they’re getting,” he said. “They’re seeing ads on the internet and one-size-fits-all, and it’s not one-size-fits-all. There are 113 different cannabinoids in a cannabis plant, and it depends on what strain you get whether it’s going to be beneficial or not.”
The bill, authored by Republican Rep. Micah Gravley, would allow 10 licenses to grow and manufacture the substance in Georgia and could create as many as 50 retail locations.
Thirty-three states have comprehensive medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia is one of 13 other states that allow patients to possess a lower potency form of the drug.
“Today, you have a patient registry and a physician registry,” Hawkins said. “We have 8,400 patients roughly. We’re adding 300 a month without changing the law. We have thousands of waiting patients that don’t even register because they know there is no real access. We have roughly 600 physicians, Dr. Cooper included, on the physician register.”
A joint House and Senate committee tasked with studying access to the drug late last year had recommended lawmakers consider providing licenses to grow, manufacture and dispense it within the state.
Gravley’s bill creates an 11-member oversight board to review licensing applications and an office to regulate the program within the Department of Public Health.
A portion of the licenses are intended for large companies and another segment is set aside for smaller businesses.
Under the proposal, licenses should be approved by Jan. 1, 2020 and products should be available within a year from approval. If not, the license could be revoked.
Cooper said the products being proposed in Georgia were only to be taken orally and the legalization of recreational marijuana was not a goal.
He said he is confident the oils will not be used recreationally since the low-THC content means someone would have to drink 17 20-ounce vials costing $100 each to get the same effect as smoking marijuana.
“It’s kind of like equating getting Zyrtec-D over the counter. What percentage of people who buy Zyrtec-D over-the-counter are converting it to methamphetamine? And that’s a very minimally scrutinized supervision where you just have to show an ID and sign for it at the pharmacy,” Cooper said.
“We’re talking about a formulation where the patient has to be registered and show their registry card with proper photo ID to pick it up, the physician has to be registered on the state list and they have to submit each prescription to the registry that is supervised by the GBI.”
Both Hawkins and Cooper said they have seen the drug work for people they know.
“My brother served in Iraq and Afghanistan, did several tours out there and came home with not a scar on him on the outside but had tremendous, debilitating PTSD to the point where he couldn’t go into crowded malls, he couldn’t watch a fireworks show, he couldn’t go to a movie theater without going into a full-blown panic attic,” Hawkins said.
“He discovered cannabis oil about three or four years ago in Florida and had the ability not only through rigorous counseling but with an adjunct therapy of cannabis oil manage his PTSD.”
Cooper said he has patients of all ages and dealing with a host of issues ask about the oils.
“I have two or three patients a day that are coming in and requesting it, and these are not just young people,” Cooper said. “I had a woman the other day in her 80s with Parkinson’s disease saying, ‘Do you think this will help me?’ I had a 15-year-old this morning, he has ticks and has ADHD. He was seeing a psychiatrist. He was on three psychotropic drugs, and they had asked me would CBD help … they tried it.
“He’s no longer seeing a psychiatrist. He’s no longer taking psychotropic and his teachers have expressed to his mother how much better he is doing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report