Medical Marijuana, Hope, & Politics

This week’s Courier Herald column:

March 3rd was “Crossover Day” in the Georgia General Assembly.  By that day, a bill must have crossed over from the House or the Senate to the other chamber in order to be considered to become law this year.  It’s a way to weed out the serious, final bills that have a chance at passing, and focus the attention on those lucky few.

Crossover day is always a busy day, and seeing what gets not only a favorable vote, but significant debate time shows which bills are truly important, and/or which bills need an honest, open discussion.  Amazingly, HB 885 received the most attention from the House on Crossover Day.  It is the bill sponsored by Representative Allen Peake of Macon that legalizes a type of medical marijuana.

Truthfully, it only legalizes cannabis oil which has been stripped of virtually all of the THC that would result in a patient getting high.  And it only approves the drug as a treatment for children facing debilitating seizures.

There’s still little way of getting around saying this bill authorizes medical marijuana.  Thus, had you told me this bill had any chance of passage last summer, I would have likely asked what you were smoking.

Like a lot of us, I’ve made a few jokes along the way as is custom when dealing with the subject of marijuana legalization.  I’d like to state for the record that I have never observed a more serious, somber debate in the House chambers.  The members took the debate seriously, and were keenly aware that there were very sick children and their very concerned parents in the gallery and waiting outside in the hall.

Member after member told stories of the children they had met – or the children that they had lost – as they grappled with what was “the right thing to do”.  The treatments can be most charitably described as experimental.  And yet, when you talk to the parents who have children who have seizures which are becoming uncontrollable – and who understand that most who have this affliction don’t live to see adulthood – the vote isn’t about a medical cure.  It is a granting of hope.

Many members struggled with whether this was a “conservative” position to take.  Most could find solace in the definition that a conservative government isn’t one that grants the most personal authority, but places the least restrictions on such.

Surprisingly, the vote was not only close, but was just shy of unanimous.  The bill passed the House 171-4.  One of the bills leading opponents, Rep Sharon Cooper of Marietta, took the well to say that she too would vote in favor to move the bill along.  She understood that the bill was little more than hope, and she hoped her concerns with the bill could be dealt with in the Senate, where the bill could be “perfected”.

Thus far, the bill has not moved in the Senate, nor has there been any perfecting going on.  Rep Peake had 30 days to work on his fellow House members.  As of yet, the Senate seems unmoved.

Furthermore, there is raw politics at play.  When Senator Rene Unterman of Buford was asked by WSB’s Lori Geary if she is holding the bill “hostage” until the House moves on some of her legislation, she responded “always when we get to the last 10 days of the session there are lots of bills held hostage. I have worked on the autism bill and it has not had a hearing in the House…These parents, a lot of them don’t understand how the General Assembly works. This building is nothing but politics.”

Unterman has promised a hearing this week on the bill, but also wants the General Assembly to consider a study committee to work out the logistics of cultivating a substance the federal government still considers illegal.  She has stated that Peake’s bill offers parents “false hope”.

The backlash to her comments seems to have generated some movement, however.  There was a brief flurry of activity in social media this weekend promoting Unterman’s bill to create a Georgia Council on Lupus Education and Awareness.  It is still awaiting action by the House.

Whether the activity is to show that Unterman does care about sick Georgians, or a nod to what the House needs to pass in order for the Medical Marijuana bill to move from Committee to the Senate Floor is hard to tell.  Either way, it does seem to be about politics, and not much about hope.