HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Legal Weed Coming To Georgia?
Pubdate: Thu, 21 Apr 2011
Source: Creative Loafing Atlanta (GA)
Copyright: 2011, Creative Loafing
Author: Scott Henry


The State's Dormant Medical Marijuana Program Is Primed for Revival
. or Maybe Not

Georgia's long, complicated relationship with medical marijuana took
an interesting turn recently as the government board that oversees
medical policy for the state quietly began enlisting doctors to help
select patients for pot therapy.

Wait, you didn't know Georgia had a relationship with ganga? Well,
old-timers should recall that, back in 1976, ex-Gov. Jimmy Carter
campaigned for president with a pledge to decriminalize marijuana use.
"Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an
individual than the use of the drug itself," Carter told Congress
after being elected. "Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws
against the possession of marijuana in private for personal use."

And it just so happens that another of our state's favorite sons,
former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, co-authored the nation's very
first bill to legalize marijuana as an, um, herbal remedy.

"We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and
patients have a right to obtain marijuana legally, under medical
supervision, from a regulated source," the then-congressman wrote in a
1981 letter that ran in the Journal of the American Medical
Association. Man, what was he smoking?

Also in 1981, the Georgia Legislature passed the "Medical Marijuana
Necessities Act," which mandated the creation of a state-run program
through which qualified cancer and glaucoma patients would receive
prescriptions of cannabis sativa.

So, what happened? Long story short, Reagan happened. The groovy '70s
gave way to the uptight '80s, the DEA went on a hiring binge, "drug
czar" became a recognizable job title and the entire nation got its
buzz harshed.

Back in Georgia, the newly formed Patient Qualification Review Board,
a state-appointed panel of physicians tasked with choosing which
cancer patients could get stoned, was defunded and disbanded after
approving only a small handful of test subjects whose names are lost
to history. Legislators even went back and changed the name of the
1981 law to the "Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act" to
downplay the connection to reefer and make it sound less fun.

The law, however, has remained on the state's books, meaning,
theoretically, that qualified patients could enroll in clinical
medical marijuana trials. Except that, without an active Patient
Qualification Review Board, no one could be qualified as a patient.
And without qualified patients, there was no need for any treatment.

In the 30 years since the passage of the pioneering Georgia law, 16
other states and the District of Columbia have allowed private medical
marijuana dispensaries to pop up -- most recently Colorado, no one's
idea of a blue state. And public sentiment regarding the use of
medical marijuana has similarly shifted. In 2009, President Obama
pledged that the federal government wouldn't interfere with programs
set up by individual states. And even ex-Congressman Bob Barr, once a
major anti-weed crusader, has come out in favor of medical marijuana.

Back in Georgia, the legalization charge has been led by longtime pot
activist Paul Cornwell, who has spent the last few years reminding the
state medical board, a division of the Department of Community Health,
that it's compelled by the 1981 law to reinstate the PQRB and resume
the clinical trials begun three decades ago.

"Anyone who has a grandmother or friend wasting away from cancer or
AIDS because they can't keep food down should favor compassionate
relief," Cornwell explains.

Recently, he got his wish. On March 24, the state medical board
oh-so-quietly issued a call for applicants -- five doctors in various
fields and one pharmacist -- to be named to a reformed PQRB. Once that
body is in place, perhaps within six months, Cornwell predicts that
opening the door officially to widespread use of medical marijuana
will be a no-brainer.

"Once the board reviews the past 30 years of studies that have been
done, we'd expect them to recommend allowing medical marijuana to be
used for a variety of ailments," he says.

But don't break out the roach clip just yet. There are mountains of
hurdles standing in the way of that first toke, not the least of which
is the original 1981 law itself, which requires that the pot be
distributed by licensed pharmacies rather than through private
dispensaries, as in other states. So, where is the neighborhood CVS
going to get Maui Wowie?

"We're working on finding that information," says LaSharn Hughes,
executive director of the state medical board. "We couldn't get it
from a street grower or anything like that. The state Attorney
General's office said we'd have to do something with the National
Cancer Institute or some government entity. But I don't know yet."

And how would patients be selected? How would the dosages be
administered? And how long should the trials continue before the PQRB
is expected to issue a recommendation? Again, no one's certain.

"To be honest, I don't know much more than LaSharn does," explains
Alexander Gross, chairman of the state medical board. "I've read the
act and she's read the act, and basically the first thing we have to
do is seat members for this review board. Then the review board will
have to do some rules writing. Once all that gets done, then we can
start looking at protocol."

But David Clark, a Gwinnett lawyer and former executive director of
the Georgia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws), doesn't believe the powers that be will allow the program to
move forward as Cornwell hopes.

"During the 20 years I've been practicing, that law has been
meaningless; it's never allowed a gram of medical marijuana, not a
single joint to be distributed in Georgia," he says. "Maybe someone's
getting some money to be on the board or something, but not one person
is going to see a gram of medical marijuana distributed in Georgia."

Instead, he says, NORML is concentrating its efforts on working with
lawmakers to ease prosecution for small quantities of pot.

Speaking of lawmakers, has Cornwell considered that Georgia's
decidedly right-wing state Legislature is likely to freak out once it
catches wind of what the state medical board is doing? After all, this
is a state where it took years of fighting just to pass a bill to
allow us to buy beer on Sundays.

"If the General Assembly tried to overturn the law and derail the
medical marijuana program, that's the best thing that could happen,"
Cornwell says. "Polls show that the voting public overwhelmingly
supports marijuana for treatment of serious illness."

If it's a showdown he wants, it's a good bet he won't be disappointed.
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