Advocates push for medical marijuana legislation, opposers warn of it

A new bill showing up in this Georgia legislative session, aims to expand the amount of conditions which can legally be treated with medical marijuana.Rep. Allen Peake is the main sponsor of House Bill (HB 65) and while advocates for medical marijuana are supporting the movement wholeheartedly, others are a bit hesitant as they demand for facts to back its medical benefits.

Dale Jackson, an advocate of medical marijuana and father of an 8-year-old boy with autism who has been using cannabis oil since 2015, after he heard about the success others have had with using it. In that time, Jackson said his son “has made leaps and bounds” since starting the use of medical marijuana.

“The biggest changes we have seen is his awareness. Before, me and my wife didn’t feel like we could communicate with him. Even though he can’t speak, we feel like he understands us better,” Jackson said. “He is much calmer, he is less likely to get upset or to have an autistic meltdown. He sleeps better. He is not constantly overwhelmed by sensory sounds. I don’t think cannabis oil is a cure, but it makes life more manageable for an autistic family.”

Under Georgia’s current medical marijuana legislation passed in 2015, those with autism still cannot legally possess cannabis. HB1 was more restrictive on the kinds and amount of conditions that qualified for the use of medical marijuana. But with the new push, six more conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, would become eligible for medical marijuana this year, if HB 65 passes. Other conditions include Tourette’s syndrome, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, human immunodeficiency virus, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

But while families like Jackson’s have had success with using medical marijuana, Dr. Sheryl Strasser, Georgia State professor of Health, warns of the negative impacts of the drug.

“There are absolute benefits and there are clear negative impacts,” Dr. Strasser said. “The research we have shows that children and young individuals using marijuana, even for medical reasons have negative brain development. It can impact long term learning and memory abilities.”

Dr. Strasser believes that it would be premature to pass legislation that would allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes without knowing what the long term effects of that could be.

“It is much better to use evidence to support a law than to support a law and wait for evidence, which is what’s happening with medical marijuana,” Dr. Strasser said.

While Dr. Strasser argues there isn’t enough research to know what all the risks of marijuana are, Blaine Cloud, whose daughter Alaina suffers from a severe form of epilepsy, said he is more concerned about the side effects of the medicines his daughter is taking now.

“Some of the medicine she takes today is highly addictive, can cause liver damage and potentially lead to death,” Cloud said. “Cannabis cannot kill you if you use too much, unlike every other single medicine our daughter takes. I’m more worried about the harm her current medication could do to her.”

While Alaina’s condition is already one that legally allows her to possess cannabis under the 2015 legislation, it is difficult to access the strain she would need.

“We aren’t able to try different strains of the oil here, due to there not being any access to different products,” Cloud said. “There are hundreds of different cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, and getting the right ratios is important, since everyone is different. This is why we will continue to fight until we have actual production and distribution here in Georgia.”

In order for it to become legal to cultivate and sell marijuana for medical purposes in Georgia, the resolution (HR 36) would need a ⅔ vote from both the House and Senate and would also need a majority of the public vote in Nov. 2018.

“I have no doubt that if [HR 36] goes to the ballot it would get 70 percent approval,” said Rep. Allen Peake, sponsor of the resolution and the new bill.

But while Peake is an advocate for the medical use of marijuana on more conditions, he said he does not support recreational use.