Pubdate: Sun, 23 Mar 2014
Source: Times, The (Gainesville, GA)
Copyright: 2014 Gainesville Times
Author: Emma Witman


Failure of medical marijuana bill leaves Hall mother sad, determined

Amendment derails cannabis oil plan despite both houses' backing

In the expiring moments of the 2014 legislative session Thursday, 
Georgia lawmakers gleefully threw shredded paper in the air, a 
tradition signifying the end of business.

In the upper gallery of the House, however, there was a much 
different show of raw emotion.

Oakwood mother Sarah Caruso was one of several Georgia parents 
distraught after a law that would have allowed access to medical 
marijuana failed to be brought for a House vote.

"I'm devastated, heartbroken and angry," Caruso said. Her daughter 
Britlyn, 5, suffers seizures and is heavily medicated to manage the symptoms.

The bill would have allowed Georgians to access a strain of cannabis 
cultivated to have minimal psychoactive properties but high levels of 
cannabidiol, or CBD. Studies have been hampered by legality, but CBD 
has been shown to be an effective way to treat seizures, advocates 
say with far fewer side effects than their narcotics counterparts.

"We're going to be there next year, and I can guarantee there will be 
children who have passed away between now and then," she said. "That 
is not OK with me, and it is not OK with so many Georgians. The 
system has failed us."

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, served on the House Health and Human

Services committee and heard a great deal of testimony on the issue. 
He said that the allowance offered a safe alternative for parents 
trying to help their kids.

"I am disappointed that we could not pass this legislation that would 
be beneficial and most helpful to those children suffering these 
terrible seizures," Hawkins said. "I thought that it was a reasonable 
approach to provide the CBD ingredient of a particular cannabis 
plant, which has very, very low levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), 
I think less than 1 percent."

The last version of the law sought to establish medical trials in the 
state on its use for the treatment of epilepsy, as well as glaucoma 
and chemotherapy symptoms.

Support of the issue gained traction as parents mobilized with the 
support of Georgia's chapter of Americans for Safe Access. The group 
advocates nationally for access to medical marijuana, and the Georgia 
Action Group focused on pediatric uses of the cannabis strain, which 
is manufactured in Colorado.

One Georgia child who seems to be responding to the treatment is 
Haleigh Cox. The 4-year-old and her parents were the faces of the 
issue in the movement's fledgling days. Ultimately, the urgency of 
her condition prompted the family to move to Colorado. Her father 
still resides in Georgia.

Hawkins, who said that the seizures cause a horizontal jerking of the 
eye that can render the sufferer essentially blind, has kept tabs on 
Haleigh's status.

"From the reports, she is responding to the oil," he said. "The eye 
movements have been reduced so greatly that she recognizes her 
parents and smiles when she sees them. Hopefully the improvements 
will continue."

"My prayers go out to her and all children who experience this," he added.

In crafting the legislation, securing in-state production to acquire 
the drug proved problematic. One iteration of legislation on the oil 
came about through an amendment added to another bill by Rep. Allen 
Peake, R-Macon, as a last-ditch attempt to secure access for parents 
seeking the oil. That provision would have granted Georgians immunity 
from state prosecution if he or she violated the law by purchasing 
the oil out-of-state in a good-faith effort for the specified medical uses.

"People need to realize though that these are federal laws that 
prevent the interstate transfer of this medicine, this ingredient," 
Hawkins said. "This was the framework so that it would be ready to be 
enacted once the federal law was changed."

The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled 
Substances Act, which does not recognize a medical use of marijuana. 
Caruso noted that additional hurdle, but said the legislative 
set-back for their group will only delay treatment if federal law 
does indeed change this year.

"If federal law changes, we're stuck, because our state did not allow 
us," she said.

Still, Caruso said, it was heartening to watch the issue earn an 
astonishing show of support.

"We made progress. When we went in, we had people slamming doors. By 
the end of it, we literally had six 'no' votes, and that's support 
from both sides," she said. "Obviously we weren't triumphant. The 
bill just got caught up in silly games."

Those "games" Caruso were referring to involved the politics of 
pushing issues by attaching them as amendments to legislation set to 
come to a vote. Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said the bill would 
not reach a vote unless it included a provision guaranteeing 
insurance companies cover early-intervention autism treatment for 
children, which was previously its own proposed law that passed overwhelmingly.

"She blatantly said on the Senate floor (that) HB885 goes nowhere 
without the autism bill," Caruso said. "That's unfortunate because 
they are not related in any way. Their bill talks about insurance. 
Our bill talks about life and death - a life-saving medicine."

"I'm a full supporter of the autism bill. I have friends who have 
kids with autism, but the bills were not related."

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, was disappointed that the measures 
failed, and said concerns on both were adequately addressed, 
including that a medical cannabis law would not indicate a step 
toward legalized recreational marijuana use. He said the insurance 
mandate would be not be a burden on state insurance policies through 
allocation of funding in the budget.

"I was, and still am, extremely disappointed that both bills did not 
pass," Miller said.

Caruso said she and other parents are resolved to keep the momentum 
going after the election year in a new session.

"We are coming back in 2015. We will be there," she said. "I want 
change. Their time has ended, but ours is still ticking."

Hawkins, who is running uncontested for his seat in 2014, said he 
believes "we will see this legislation again in some form."

But for the time being, after many all-day trips to Atlanta, Caruso 
is grateful to spend time with her daughter, and help her live a full 
and happy life anyway she can.

"Britlyn has a Make a Wish trip that we're flying out to tomorrow. 
Now we're going to go celebrate her life and just cherish her," she said.

Still, the thought looms that her seizures will worsen and possibly 
kill her. Moving to Colorado, like the Cox family, is not an option 
she has eliminated. But beyond being apart from her husband, her 
situation is complicated by having shared custody of her two oldest 
kids from another marriage.

"It's more than uprooting my life; it's leaving behind two kids to 
save one," Caruso said. "It's heartbreaking - devastating - to come 
home and look at your daughter, your son, and know you can't help 
them right now."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom