Georgia’s new medical marijuana law inspires national effort

WASHINGTON — Even though Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law with much fanfare last week to allow medical patients to possess small amounts of cannabis oil, the Clark family still faces a conundrum.

It remains a federal crime to bring the oil that 12-year-old Caden takes to treat his seizures from Colorado, where he lives now with his mother, to Georgia, where the family hopes to reunite this summer.

So the Gold Dome’s medical marijuana fight has now migrated to Capitol Hill.

The Clarks are among a network of families across the country pushing a narrow bill to remove the oil and the hemp plants that produce it from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of Schedule I illegal drugs.

Georgia is one of 14 states that have legalized the oil, but transporting the drug across state lines remains a federal crime.

While they are related to marijuana, the plants are low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the stuff that gets you high. What Paige Figi, a mother of a seizure-stricken child who is leading the nationwide advocacy group Coalition for Access Now, runs into most among skeptics is the “slippery slope argument,” she said at a news conference Wednesday in Washington.

Republicans in Congress have tried to fight the District of Columbia’s move to legalize recreational marijuana possession. California’s medical marijuana program is notoriously lax.

Figi said the federal bill has been softened this year in its second incarnation to make it more palatable. It would expire in three years, so lawmakers would have to revisit it in case of any unintended consequences. The word “hemp” is no longer in the title. It’s now called the “Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act,” named for a strain of the cannabis named after Figi’s daughter.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, has led the charge in Congress. His bill now has 27 co-sponsors, including U.S. Reps. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican; David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat; and Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican.

Perry said he was influenced by the stories of his own constituents, and building support in Congress is just a matter of connecting lawmakers with families of children who tried every legal method to stop seizures before turning toward a natural but semi-legal alternative.

There is no companion bill yet in the U.S. Senate. State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who led the charge on the state law, said Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia was an “eager supporter” of his efforts. Perdue has not yet taken a position on the federal bill.

Peake said the state’s senior Republican U.S. senator, Johnny Isakson, will be a harder sell.

“They’re open to finding solutions that benefit our citizens,” Peake said, “but they also have the concern that we become California or Colorado.”

Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said the senator “offered to lend his help should the state run into any federal regulatory issues in implementing this access.”

But Isakson has concerns with the U.S. House bill because it would remove cannabidiol from U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight, meaning the agency could not enforce labeling or purity.

While the U.S. House bill has yet to receive a hearing — Figi said committee chairmen have been some of the biggest “roadblocks” — states continue to pass their own laws. Perry said having a Southern conservative state such as Georgia pass a bill “helps immensely” as he goes about wooing colleagues.

“It’s a bit politically risky,” Perry said. “They hear the opponents of full legalization and recreational use and potentially even the medical use if it’s abused, and they lump it all together, which is why it makes it just critically important that we work hard to educate and stay focused on this.”

The DEA, meanwhile, says its hands are tied.

Spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said the department cannot change how it enforces the law against cannabidiol until the Food and Drug Administration approves it as a medicine, or until Congress changes the law. The FDA is now researching cannabidiol products while trying to crack down on companies marketing potentially unsafe versions of the drug.

As Congress weighs whether to move forward, advocates’ best weapons are families such as the Clarks.

Chris Clark is a former sergeant in the Atlanta Police Department who dealt with narcotics. He and his wife, Kim, sought treatment after treatment for Caden’s epileptic seizures without success.

Kim Clark started researching cannabidiol and, out of options, packed up with her two sons and moved to Colorado, where it was legal. Chris Clark moved in with his father in Alabama and commutes each day to work in Georgia in order to support the family.

The treatment worked for Caden, who once had 300 seizures a day and now goes two weeks without having one at all. He’s ditched the helmet he used to have to wear for protection when he left the house. He plays with toys. He even has a girlfriend, Kim Clark reports.

“He’s got more of a life than he’s ever had in his 12 years,” she said.

Once their older son finishes the school year, the Clarks all hope to move back to the Atlanta area now that they can legally possess the oil Caden needs. The challenge is getting the medication home.

“If you’re involved in a traffic stop, (police dogs are) going to pick up on the smell,” Chris Clark said.

“You’re looking at facing charges in whatever state you’re stopped in. … But I challenge anybody that wouldn’t do the same thing for their child.”

 

Atlantic Journal Constitution - Daniel Malloy