Pubdate: Thu, 14 Jul 2016
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2016 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Kristina Torres


While Usage Is Legal in Some Cases, It Still Can't Be Grown in the State.

The phones at the Georgia Department of Public Health no longer ring 
off the hook with people calling to find doctors or asking questions 
about how the state's medical marijuana registry works.

Yet Georgia's quiet revolution in the year since it legalized a 
limited form of medical marijuana has shown little sign of slowing. 
Even so, obstacles and risks remain in the push for expansion.

According to one of the lead researchers at Augusta University's 
Medical College of Georgia, state-based clinical trials show promise 
in using a specific form of medical marijuana called cannabidiol to 
treat severe epileptic seizures.

The state's official registry of approved patients, which by late 
summer last year included about 130 people, now counts about 830 
people and climbing.

And yet some parents now gather in virtual chat rooms and their own 
homes, sharing notes about how to make their own cannabis oil to help 
treat children dealing with often intractable conditions. Making it 
is illegal. The state - despite having legalized possession of a 
limited form of the oil - continues to ban the growing and 
manufacturing of any form of medical marijuana within state boundaries.

"That's what a legal possession-only law creates - until parents have 
some way to have safe and consistent access, they are forced to break 
the law to meet the standards of what Georgia has allowed," said 
Blaine Cloud, who with his wife, Shannon, have been at the forefront 
of an organized push by parents to expand Georgia's law.

Their daughter, Alaina, has a severe form of epilepsy that causes 
uncontrollable seizures and developmental delays, and they themselves 
have struggled with finding the right "strain" of oil to help her. 
They recently decided to take her off cannabis oil as they prepare to 
try another treatment.

Twenty-six states now allow the use of medical marijuana with 
in-state distribution, including versions of the drug grown or made 
there. Sixteen others, including Georgia, allow its use on more 
restrictive terms, with no in-state access - meaning those seeking it 
must look elsewhere to obtain it.

In Georgia, patients and, in the case of children, families who 
register with the state are allowed to possess up to 20 ounces of a 
limited form of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight specific 
illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy. It's 
up to the patients, however, to figure out how to get it here, a 
proposition made more fraught because federal law bans interstate 
transport of any form of the drug.

"There are still logistical and financial hardships even for the 
folks that are properly registered with the state," said state Rep. 
Allen Peake, R-Macon, who authored Georgia's medical marijuana law 
but has yet to persuade enough lawmakers to approve in-state 
cultivation and to expand the number of conditions allowed for 
treatment. Efforts on both those fronts failed earlier this year in 
the Georgia Legislature, and they also continue to be opposed by Gov. 
Nathan Deal.

Instead, both Peake and parents said a kind of underground network 
among likeminded families has established itself in the past year and 
seems likely to continue unless both federal and state laws change.

"A low-THC product (the high-inducing chemical associated with 
recreational marijuana use) can be shipped, but the other strains 
that have also seemed to be of particular benefit can't be shipped by 
federal law even though they are allowed under Georgia's law," Peake 
said. "So we've had to figure out another way to get those products 
to Georgia, and we've done that. We've figured out how to get the 
product here. The financial hardship, we've done by providing product 
to families that need it" at little to no cost.

Peake, however, is unaware of anyone being arrested for bringing the 
drug into the state.

Marijuana continues to be classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous class of 
drugs with a high potential for abuse and addiction, and no accepted 
medical uses.

Change may be coming, though.

The DEA is expected to announce as soon as August whether marijuana 
has potential therapeutic value and should be bumped down to at least 
Schedule II.

The reclassification would open more doors for medical research and 
treatment, although it would still leave marijuana in a category with 
cocaine and methamphetamine, drugs considered to have a strong 
potential for abuse.

For many in Georgia's law enforcement community, the onus is on the 
federal government to change federal law - something they view as 
essential before Georgia expands its own efforts.

"We continue to hold the position that the federal government should 
seriously consider the scheduling of marijuana," said Chuck Spahos, 
the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia.

"No prosecutor in this state wants to stand in the way of people that 
need any medicine from getting it," Spahos said. "Medical marijuana 
should be treated just like all other drugs used for medical 
purposes, and the federal government can ensure that by rescheduling 
the substance."

Those in Georgia studying the effect of the drug's growing 
therapeutic use both here and nationally said all states have had to 
grapple with certain aspects, including the fact that while doctors 
may recommend the use of medical marijuana, they still cannot legally 
prescribe it.

University of Georgia professor W. David Bradford, who studies the 
effects of public administration and policy, earlier this month 
co-authored a national study that found a correlation between medical 
marijuana and lowered prescription drug use within Medicare's 
prescription drug benefit program in states where it was legal to use 
the drug for medicinal purposes.

The savings were estimated to be about $165.2 million in 2013, well 
before Georgia's passed its own law.

And the Medical College of Georgia's Dr. Yong Park said Tuesday that 
researchers were encouraged by early results in Georgia that involved 
a specific drug, the cannabis-derived oil Epidiolex. Other results 
are pending, but of 30 patients who took the drug for at least four 
months, 63 percent saw a reduction in severe seizures. And six 
patients - about 20 percent - appeared to be seizure-free.

"That's very encouraging," said Park, who with his team has submitted 
those findings for review and possible presentation in December at 
the American Epilepsy Society's annual meeting. The Georgia clinical 
trials are expected to continue until the drug in the trial, made by 
GW Pharmaceuticals, wins approval from the FDA, Park said. 
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