Thousands of Georgians suffering from serious health conditions could see some relief by the end of this year. The process to deliver low-THC oil to registered patients in Georgia, already in the works for several years, is closer to being completed.
The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission launched their license application process last November. The commission is charged with establishing the infrastructure needed to supply the state’s registered patients with medical cannabis.
The program, years in the making to regulate the cultivation, extraction and distribution of low-grade marijuana oil, is set to award licenses to six groups from among 70 applicants by this spring or early summer.
And Georgia’s lawmakers recently moved to expand who can qualify for dispensing licenses and where they can be located, and passed Senate Bill 195 during the 2021 legislative session.
The Commission oversees the regulated licensing of in-state cultivation, production, manufacturing and sale of low-THC oil. This commission also oversees how low-THC oil is dispensed to registered patients on the state’s Low-THC Oil Registry.
Senate Bill 195, which Gov. Kemp has not yet signed, would also give local governments more leeway on where dispensaries can open similar to zoning rules for alcohol vendors, potentially waiving a requirement for medical cannabis providers to keep 3,000 feet away from schools, churches and activity centers, according to a recent story in Capitol Beat News Service.
Legislation passed in the General Assembly earlier this month aims to allow local pharmacies to dispense low-THC oil, pending approval from the state Board of Pharmacy.
That leeway aims to give local officials more control over where to locate dispensaries rather than abiding by state mandates, said state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, who spearheaded the bill in this year’s legislative session.
Gravley stressed that enough security measures like fencing, cameras and a state-run tracking system will be in place to keep cannabis plants and oils from going to people who do not suffer from diagnosed medical needs.
“These are not families that want to get high,” Gravley said. “These are families that need oil.”
Once selected, the six applicants will have 12 months to open a maximum five dispensaries each and start providing medicinal low-THC oil to the nearly 19,000 patients signed up on a state registry, according to state law and data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).
Cultivators could start providing THC oil to patients much sooner than the year-long time limit based on applicant projections, according to Andrew Turnage, executive director of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission tasked with overseeing the program.
“We are cautiously optimistic that this could be a very good Christmas for a lot of THC oil patients in Georgia,” said Turnage, a former Hall County deputy sheriff who has served top roles on the state Board of Nursing and Board of Cosmetology and Barbers, as quoted in the Capitol Beat News story.
And Gravley, contacted by phone for comment, agrees that the scenario is not out of the question.
“I’m enthusiastic about the work of the commission and Director Turnage; I know they’re working hard to make sure Georgia patients are able to get oil and depending on who the cultivators are that get chosen, that could be a real possibility,” he said.
The law was tweaked in 2019 to create licensing rules and allow some universities to research THC’s treatment benefits.
Turnage said he hopes certain universities will take interest in researching the medicinal benefits of THC oil, though the only two colleges authorized by state law to secure growing licenses — the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University — have not applied for licenses so far and Gravley doubts they will.
But Turnage said several schools are interested in conducting research including Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Emory University and Augusta University.
Gravley said those other colleges can partner with a cultivator and do research on the product and provide data back to the cultivating company they’ve gone into an agreement with.
Many patients in Georgia have already benefited from medical cannabis treatment, according to advocates.
Gravley is also very convinced research efforts will lead to additional discoveries regarding the medicinal benefits.
“We are in a day and age when medical science is changing every moment when it comes to this substance. We are learning the medicinal value of this substance and I think it’s going to help a tremendous amount of people,” he said.
Gravley, vice-chair of the House Majority Caucus, had his role in this process recently expanded and was appointed by Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) to serve as a member of the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee.
According to a press release issued by the Georgia House of Representatives, the Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee assists the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission in its efforts to regulate medical cannabis in the state. Members of the Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee are permitted to inspect any cannabis production facility in Georgia upon request and after reasonable notice is provided to the production facility.
“I’ll be going around the state and will get to work with the commission and have an opportunity to ensure these companies are doing exactly what they said they were going to do and doing it correctly — and make sure that the law is being followed,” Gravley said.
According to the press release, if this bill is signed into law, the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission would be required to provide certain information and documents to assist the oversight committee’s work. This bill would also direct the oversight committee to recommend a process and plan regarding accredited lab testing and labeling of approved cannabis products, as well as allow the oversight committee to seek input from patients and physicians regarding the quality and accessibility of medical cannabis.
Medical cannabis has been in the works in Georgia since 2015 when state lawmakers legalized oils containing no more than 5% THC.
Patients in Georgia will only have access under state law to oil extracts containing small amounts of marijuana’s active ingredient called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
And Turnage sought to assure the program will have guardrails in place to ensure only qualified patients will receive medical cannabis, particularly after lawmakers this year approved about $622,000 to hire an attorney, police-trained inspector, and two licensed administrators.