Georgia’s medical marijuana bill is a step in the right direction

Legislators may pass the Haleigh’s Hope Act before the session ends next week, improving access to a form of medical marijuana for children like her who suffer from seizure disorders. But Haleigh won’t be in Georgia for the occasion.

“Haleigh quit breathing six times last night, so we don’t have time anymore,” her mother, Janea Cox, told me Wednesday. Mother and daughter left Thursday for Colorado, which already has legalized the cannabis oil that has helped other children reduce the number of debilitating seizures they suffer from as many as hundreds every day to as few as one every few months.

House Bill 885 by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, would allow medical researchers in Georgia to study the use of cannabis oil in children who suffer from seizure disorders that have proved resistant to conventional medications. A new version of the bill unveiled Wednesday would also protect parents from prosecution for possession of cannabis oil prescribed for their children.

“The law is not perfect,” said Shannon Cloud of Smyrna, whose 8-year-old daughter Alaina has suffered seizures her whole life due to a genetic condition called Dravet syndrome.

“It doesn’t mean on July 1,” when the bill, if passed, would take effect, “our kids are going to be on the medicine, unfortunately. But if anyone has the resources and the effort to go to Colorado and establish residence and get the medicine, they could bring it back here.”

Colorado is mentioned often in relation to cannabis oil. Marijuana also notably became legal for recreational use there this year. But the cannabis oil in question isn’t smoked and doesn’t contain enough of the chemical THC to get patients high. It wouldn’t put Georgia on the road to legalized weed any more than the state’s approval years ago of marijuana for cancer or glaucoma patients did.

In fact, supporters point out, cannabis oil is already legal in 20 states. Thirteen states, including Georgia as well as Alabama, are currently considering legalizing it.

Unless the federal government loosens restrictions on transporting cannabis oil between states that have legalized it, parents would have to risk a “Smokey and the Bandit”-like trip from one of those 20 states to Georgia. If they can get it somehow, the latest version of HB 885 would give them immunity from prosecution.

But the bill could also give them other means to get cannabis oil. Research hospitals could apply to run clinical studies using the oil.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta could have a study up and running by year’s end if it seeks and obtains the necessary approvals, said David Tatum, CHOA’s vice president for government affairs. Peake said he expects at least one medical college in the state to seek approval for a study as well.

So this is not a matter of false hope for these children and their parents, even if the bill doesn’t go as far as some parents had hoped.

Lawmakers’ reluctance to go further is in part because research into the use and long-term effects of cannabis oil is mostly anecdotal at this point. But the success it has shown — along with the fact legal drugs for these seizures can cause liver damage, kidney failure, hyperactivity, depression or other side effects — makes for a convincing case Georgia should let studies go forward.

That, and the daunting task ahead of those who feel compelled to go wherever they can to get cannabis oil for their children.

“It’s difficult to pick up and move as a family, much less a special-needs family, to another state. And the point is, you shouldn’t have to,” said Shannon Cloud’s husband, Blaine. The cost is not only a financial one: Moving also means leaving behind family-and-friend support networks and the doctors who have seen their children their entire, young lives.

In Haleigh’s case, that even means leaving her dad behind in Georgia while she and her mom move west. At least until they can get the medicine she needs and — assuming HB 885 becomes law — return.

“It would mean getting our family back together,” Janea Cox said. Until then, “he’ll be in Georgia and we’ll be in Colorado.”


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