In February, the University of Georgia boasted that its economic impact on the state reached $6.3 billion in the 2018 fiscal year. With the passage and signing of Georgia House Bill 324, a new product could soon be cultivated and studied at UGA — medical marijuana.
HB 324, signed into law on April 17 by Gov. Brian Kemp, licenses UGA and Fort Valley State University to “produce, manufacture, and purchase low THC oil,” overseen by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. It licenses up to six private companies to do so, and Georgia’s 9,500 registered medical marijuana patients will be able to purchase and use the drug medicinally.
Medical marijuana has been legal in the form of low THC oil in Georgia since 2015, but it was illegal to grow, purchase, sell, or transport the oil until the bill was passed.
“House Bill 324, Georgia’s Hope Act, expands access for those in need, without opening the door to recreational drugs,” Kemp said at a signing ceremony at the Georgia Capitol.
One supporter who was present, Leslie Johns of Macon, has been giving oil to her 16-year-old son Darrell since 2015. Darrell was born with hydrocephalus and experiences chronic seizures. Before, he took 17 pills daily and was still having multiple seizures every day. Since he started using cannabis oil, he takes less medication and averages one seizure every four to six weeks. Leslie Johns previously crossed state lines to obtain oil.
A notable opponent of the bill was Sen. Bill Cowsert, Kemp’s brother-in-law and a Republican legislator who represents part of Athens. Cowsert believed the bill could foster the commercialization of recreational marijuana, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Athens’ other state legislators — Sen. Frank Ginn (R-47) and Reps. Houston Gaines (R-117) and Marcus Wiedower (R-119) — voted for the bill.
Medical marijuana can be used to safely and effectively treat a number of symptoms and conditions, including chronic pain, nausea, and loss of appetite from chemotherapy or HIV/AIDs, said W. David Bradford, a professor at UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs.
In 2016, Bradford co-authored a study that was published in Health Affairs, which found medical marijuana saves hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for Medicare, due to fewer people consuming traditional prescription drugs.
“While it’s very easy to overdose on an opioid and suppress your brain to the point that you suffocate, it’s not possible with cannabis,” Bradford said. “You can consume so much that you do stupid things, and that can lead to injury, but it’s actually a very safe drug.”
The legal framework for UGA to produce marijuana is “harder to understand and to forecast,” Bradford said, due to its status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act. The Drug Enforcement Agency regulates marijuana research and issues licenses to study it.
HB 324 calls for UGA to apply to contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse or obtain cannabis from “any available legal source.” The DEA has only issued one such license, to the University of Mississippi. The DEA announced in 2016 it would start accepting other applicants.
“This is a big deal — to have safe, legal access,” Johns said.