AJC Opinion: Compassion Over Politics by James Bell Georgia CARE

No one would have predicted that medical marijuana legislation — with near-unanimous support from the Georgia House and Senate, the governor’s office, law enforcement agencies and the public — would have failed to pass the General Assembly.

So goes House Bill 885, legislation that would have expanded an old law allowing the use of the cannabis plant — marijuana — for certain medical conditions.

Unfortunately HB 885 would not have delivered the medicine to patients who could benefit. It did not allow for in-state cultivation, and it limited the medicine to one compound: cannabidiol. Lawmakers looked to Colorado as a model of reform, but refused to consider and implement similar legislation that delivers safe and legal medicine to patients.

HB 885 would have allowed patients and caregivers to go to legal states, obtain cannabis products and transport them across state lines back to Georgia — in violation of various state and federal laws. Encouraging black-market smuggling of a controlled substance is not the approach Georgia should consider.

Cannabis has been safely used by mankind for thousands of years to treat numerous ailments. Today, it’s used to treat glaucoma, AIDS, Crohn’s, epilepsy, asthma, arthritis, pain, nausea and other conditions.

While the focus in Georgia was on treating children with epilepsy with one compound from the cannabis plant, whole plant therapeutics was discouraged and even demonized by some lawmakers. Patients and doctors should make decisions about what medical treatments are best for patients.

As director of Georgia CARE Project (Campaign for Access, Reform & Education), I offer legislators a more comprehensive approach to cannabis therapeutics. For Georgia law to provide effective protection for seriously ill people who engage in the medical use of cannabis, state law must:

• Define “legitimate medical use” of cannabis by requiring a person who seeks legal protection to have a medical condition that is sufficiently serious or debilitating, and have the approval of his or her medical practitioner.

• Avoid provisions that would require patients, physicians or government employees to violate federal law for patients to legally use medical cannabis.

• Provide at least one of the following means of obtaining cannabis, and preferably all three: Permit patients to cultivate their own cannabis; permit caregivers to cultivate cannabis on behalf of patients; and authorize nongovernmental organizations to cultivate and distribute cannabis to patients and their primary caregivers.

• Implement a series of sensible restrictions, such as prohibiting patients and providers from possessing large quantities of cannabis, and prohibiting driving while under the influence of cannabis, and so forth.

Moving forward, we should focus on better legislation similar to Senate Bill 432 offered by Sen. Curt Thompson. I commend the efforts of state officials and the public for engaging in this important medical and legal debate.

Perhaps 2015 will be the year that compassion prevails over politics in Georgia.

James Bell is executive director of Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform & Education — Georgia CARE.