A bill to repair Georgia’s failed medical cannabis program died in the state Senate this week as lawmakers failed to come to an agreement on a compromise proposal. The legislation was approved in the state House of Representatives but was tabled in the Georgia Senate by a vote of 28-27 on Monday.
“I’m really, really disappointed,” House Speaker David Ralston said after the bill died in the Senate.
In 2015, the Georgia state legislature passed the Haleigh’s Hope Act, a measure that allowed patients with certain medical conditions including seizure disorders and end-stage cancer to use cannabis oil containing no more than 5% THC. However, the legislation did not include provisions for the regulated production and sale of cannabis oil, leaving patients with no legal way to obtain their medicine.
Four years later, lawmakers finally approved a bill to permit medical pot cultivation and cannabis oil production and sales. The same year, Governor Brian Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and Ralston appointed a seven-member commission to draft regulations and license medical cannabis producers.
In 2021, the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission (GMCC) announced that it would award licenses to six companies from a pool of nearly 70 applicants. More than a dozen unsuccessful applicants filed protests challenging the selections. One applicant, Georgia Atlas, filed a lawsuit characterizing the selection process as “lacking in transparency, objectivity and fairness.” The legal action stopped the licensing process in its tracks, leaving Georgia’s 20,000 registered medical pot patients still without access to legal cannabis oil.
“We’ve been trying to get this done here in Georgia for about seven or eight years now, and it’s still not done,” Ralston said.
Last month, the House and Senate approved separate bills to address the shortcomings and get Georgia’s medical cannabis program up and running. A legislative conference committee drafted the compromise proposal that failed to gain approval in the Senate this week. Under the compromise bill, a state agency would review all of the protests and the original applications to award six medical cannabis licenses by June. The proposal would also have allowed for regulators to award three additional licenses to medical cannabis producers. The compromise measure passed in the House of Representatives on Monday night by a vote of 95-73.
“We’ve finally come up with a plan that is fair to all concerned,” said House Majority Leader Jon Burns after the bill’s approval. “This addresses a need, a desperate need for the citizens of our state to utilize this product that makes a huge difference in the health of the people of this state.”
But in the Senate, Minority Leader Gloria Butler moved to table the legislation. The motion was approved, preventing the bill from coming to vote.
Lawmakers Fail, Patients Lose
The failure of state lawmakers to draft legislation for a working medical cannabis program in Georgia means that patients will continue to go without their medication. State Representative Ben Watson said that the situation is shameful.
“We’ve been working on this for 10 years. We have not gotten this oil to children that they deserve,” Watson said. “That is what the children of the state of Georgia and all those registrants deserve — getting that oil to them.”
Dale Jackson, the father of a medical cannabis patient and a co-applicant who was not approved for a license in the original selection round, was disappointed at the failure of lawmakers to come up with a solution.
“The state of Georgia had three years and accomplished nothing,” said Jackson.
“It’s an abomination to the families of Georgia how messed up this commission is, and how leadership has failed the families of Georgia,” he added.
Cannabis advocates including Jackson were also critical of the medical cannabis commission’s lack of transparency in awarding the licenses. Information on thousands of pages from winning bids was redacted by state law and withheld from the public. The scoring of the winning bids by the commission’s politically appointed members was also kept secret.
“The way in which this new agency was rolled out. It was so egregious. It was horrible,” said Jackson.
After the bill was tabled in the Senate, Ralston said the move was a disappointment for the state’s medical cannabis patients.
“I’m at a loss on that,” Ralston told reporters. “How long are these people going to have to wait? I’m really, really disappointed. We worked, we couldn’t get the Senate to engage very much on the conference committee. We thought we had them engaged, they came back with a conference committee report, and they put it up and it gets beat. I hope the families of Georgia know that we gave it our best shot. The blame is over there, as far as I’m concerned.”