Will 2015 be the year for medical marijuana?

Marlo Smith

Marlo Smith used to have up to 30 seizures a day. Now she’s down to roughly one seizure every two or three days.

The improvement in the youngster’s condition came after she and her mother and siblings moved from Georgia to Colorado.

Colorado has relaxed its laws against marijuana use, and has drawn many families from other states seeking medical cannabis treatment. Marlo, 7, is receiving three doses a day of cannabis oil there.

Meanwhile, her father, Dr. James Smith, is still in Georgia, living apart from his family and continuing his work as an emergency physician at Gwinnett Medical Center.

But if a Georgia House bill to legalize medical marijuana is approved in next year’s General Assembly, the Smiths could be reunited and resume their normal family life in metro Atlanta.

If that occurs, a hopeful Dr. Smith told reporters Wednesday, “I get to see her all the time. I get to have my family back. It’d be Christmas.’’

State Rep. Allen Peake introduced James and Courtney Smith at a state Capitol news conference focused on his bill to make medical marijuana legal in Georgia. Peake, a Macon Republican, said the Smiths are among at least 17 Georgia families living in Colorado so they can have access to medical marijuana.

“We need to bring Georgia families home,’’ Peake said. He cited the Smiths in saying, “That’s why I’ll fight to my last breath for [these] families.”

Peake led the charge in the 2014 General Assembly session for medical marijuana, but his measure ultimately collapsed in the Legislature’s final hours.

State. Rep. Allen Peake
Rep. Allen Peake

Marijuana legalization is a complex, controversial subject. Some states that have legalized medical marijuana, such as Colorado, have also legalized recreational pot.

But many medical marijuana advocates strongly oppose allowing recreational use and say it’s a totally different issue. Meanwhile, federal laws against marijuana remain on the books, although they are not currently being zealously enforced against medical users.

Smith is hopeful the Georgia medical marijuana bill will pass this time around. “I think we’re smarter,’’ he told reporters. “We’re better prepared. Our goal is to come up with the best medical cannabis legislation in the country.”

Peake said that under his proposal, the cannabis would be grown in Georgia. It would be available for other diagnoses besides children’s seizure disorders. Those could include multiple sclerosis, ALS, Crohn’s disease, autism, cancer, glaucoma and chronic pain, he said.

He added that he hoped that the oil could be available for patients within a year of the governor signing a legalization bill.

“We’ve learned from last year’s failure,’’ Peake said.

He said he is against a recent legislative proposal by state Sen. Curt Thompson (D-Tucker) to allow recreational use of marijuana in Georgia. Peake said his own House Bill 1, which would legalize medical marijuana only, is “very tight, very restricted.”

Peake’s bill would allow a limited number of licensees to grow, manufacture and distribute medical marijuana in Georgia. Use would be restricted to medicine that’s a liquid, pill or injection. Smokable marijuana would not be allowed.

Only registered patients would have access to the treatment, and it would only be dispensed by licensed entities within the state. The bill would also decriminalize the possession of medical cannabis oil in Georgia for those patients who legally obtained the medicine in another state.

Gov. Nathan Deal has pushed for clinical trials of medical marijuana at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.

Not everyone convinced

Also Wednesday, Peake chaired a legislative study committee hearing on medical marijuana. He told lawmakers that 33 states have approved medical marijuana.

But other testimony sounded alarms about passing a bill in Georgia. Rick Allen of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency noted that the federal stance remains that cannabis is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and as such, cannot be prescribed.

Federal law prohibits marijuana and its products. The Justice Department has told Colorado and Washington that their state-regulated marijuana programs won’t be a priority for federal law enforcement.

Virginia Galloway of the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Georgia told the committee Wednesday that she has concerns about the lack of adequate scientific research on the efficacy of medical marijuana. Galloway also said there are potential problems with monitoring the use of marijuana, as well as the legal issues involving federal laws on marijuana.

“I have tremendous sympathy for these families,’’ Galloway added.

Rep. Allen Peake speaks with reporters while Dr. James Smith and his wife, Courtney, look on.
Rep. Allen Peake speaks with reporters while Dr. James Smith and his wife, Courtney, look on.

Dr. Smith asked the lawmakers to look at him as more of a “desperate father’’ than a physician.

He said that after five months on her medication, Marlo has made remarkable progress.

“Her personality came back,’’ he said. “She’s reading again.”

Smith told the panel that before her medical cannabis regimen took effect, Marlo’s medications “increasingly turned her into a zombie.”

“We tried every other option,” Smith said. “It is working and is the only thing that has worked.”

He said the oil she takes is very low in THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. (In layman’s terms, that means the oil would not be very effective in making a person ‘‘high.”)

Georgia could take the leading edge in research into medical marijuana if it were legal here, he added.

Smith said his family could afford the move to Colorado, but that ‘‘for many Georgia families, this is not an option.”

Smith urged lawmakers to create a solution for Georgia families. “Fear should never prevent a just result.”