Fifteen months ago, a local reporter asked me if there was any interest within the General Assembly in taking on the medical marijuana issue for the 2014 legislative session, and I told him, emphatically, that there was none and that I did not foresee that issue coming up anytime soon in Georgia. Then, a week later, I met a little 4-year-old girl named Haleigh and her courageous mom and dad, and was I proved ever so wrong.
I learned that Haleigh was having 100-200 seizures a day, and that medical cannabis oil had been showing evidence of stopping those seizures. Once I heard that Haleigh and her mom were making plans to move to Colorado where cannabis oil is legal, I was confronted with the question that each of us has to ask: What would I do if this were my child?
Asking myself this question was the beginning of a journey into uncharted territory for me and the entire General Assembly as we confronted hurdles that made it very difficult to attempt to pass or legalize any form of medical marijuana in this state. ... The challenges were too difficult to overcome last year, and the bill, House Bill 885, failed on the last day of the session.
It was a crushing blow, as we knew children would die before we would have the opportunity to try to pass legislation again. And, yes, we lost some of Georgia’s children whose parents lobbied at the State Capitol — Trinity Sumlin, Abe Hopkins, Mary Elizabeth Hopkins, Lela Hall — young kids whose lives could have been extended, and improved, with medical cannabis.
Losing those precious children only energized the parents, who lobbied and worked so hard last year, and they were determined to convince our elected officials that Georgia’s children, and other hurting citizens, deserve a chance to have legal access to cannabis oil in this state. During the last year, 17 Georgia families moved to another state to access cannabis oil and were determined to give their child an opportunity to see if this medicine could stop their child’s seizures. Every single family saw a reduced number of seizures, and they also saw improved cognitive ability, and many were weaned off the debilitating Food and Drug Administration antiseizure drugs. They found out the medicine worked, but they were medical refugees and desperately wanted to come back home to reunite with their spouses, and support networks.
The very good news is that these Georgia families will now be able to come back home with the passage of HB 1, named the Haleigh’s Hope Act, after the young girl who inspired our entire state. HB 1 will provide immunity from prosecution for possession of medical cannabis oil for eight medical conditions: cancer, multiple sclerosis, seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disorders and sickle-cell anemia. After patients or caregivers have received a recommendation from their treating physician, they will be eligible to receive a registration card from the state affirming they can legally possess the oil in Georgia.
However, these individuals still will be required to legally obtain the oil in another state. This will be the case until we come up with a safe and effective cultivation and delivery system that is strictly regulated in our state. A commission will be created to study the best way to do that in Georgia. Their recommendation will be made to the governor and General Assembly by Dec. 31. The members of the commission will be stakeholders in this issue including: medical professionals, law-enforcement officials, pharmacists, government agencies and elected officials.
While this step is too far for some, and not far enough for others, it will give some Georgia citizens the option to obtain medicine that could change their lives, and it is a step in the right direction. And that is a good thing for Georgians.
There are too many people to thank who deserve credit for passage of this bill, from the parents who lobbied at the Capitol almost every day to share their lives and their stories; to my House colleagues who supported this initiative early and at great political risk; to Speaker David Ralston, who made this a priority for the House; to Gov. Nathan Deal, who worked behind the scenes to support bringing our medical refugees home and led the charge for a clinical-trial protocol; and to senators and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle who agreed that our state should move in this direction.
Finally, I also have to also the citizens of this state. It was your words of encouragement, prayers and support that made it clear that Georgia supports legislation that gives hurting citizens a choice to improve their quality of life. Your voices were heard loudly and clearly at the state Capitol. And our state and our fellow citizens are now better because of it.