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‘A predictable mess’: Lawsuit over Ga. stalled medical marijuana licensing goes to court

One Ga. cannabis company called the bidding process “lacking in transparency, objectivity and fairness.”
Updated: Jan. 20, 2022 at 6:01 PM EST
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ATLANTA (CBS46) — It has been seven years since former Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill legalizing cannabis oil for people with chronic illnesses in Georgia. Today, there is still nowhere in the state patients can go to buy that oil.

In 2019, a seven-member commission was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston to to craft regulations and license cannabis producers – but their licensing process has been met with heavy criticism, protests and a federal lawsuit.

‘Lacking in transparency, objectivity and fairness’

In 2021, the GA Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, or GMCC, announced six winners from a pool of nearly 70. Botanical Sciences LLC and Trulieve GA, Inc. won Class 1 Production Licenses. FFD GA Holdings, Theratrue Georgia LLC, Natures GA LLC and Treevana Remedy Inc. were awarded Class 2 Licenses. A Class 1 license allows grow facilities up to 100,000 square feet; a Class 2 permit allows facilities up to 50,000 square feet.

Almost immediately after, there was backlash from some of the losing bidders. Nearly two dozen filed protests. Cannabis company, Georgia Atlas, took it a step further and filed a lawsuit - in which they call the bidding process “lacking in transparency, objectivity and fairness.”

“To even pretend you’re doing something properly and objectively, you gotta at least do blind grading. They didn’t even do that,” attorney Jerome Lee, who is representing Georgia Atlas, said.

When Lee requested the winning applications from GMCC, he got hundreds of blacked out pages. CBS46 Investigates encountered the same thing when we received the government documents.

Andrew Turnage, Exec. Director of the GA Access to Medical Cannabis Commission told us in a statement: “Although the requested records exist, state law requires such records to be confidential and not be subject to the Georgia Open Records Act.”

“The secrecy thing is concerning,” Lee said.

Georgia Atlas alleges that “back room deals” took place. They point to winning bidder, Botanical Sciences – which does not have an operational website yet but does have on its board of directors, former U.S. Congressman and one-time marijuana opponent, Tom Price.

A Botanical Sciences spokesperson told CBS46 Investigates, “Unfortunately, our team’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.”

Georgia Atlas’ allegations also insinuate that winning bidder, Trulieve, improperly donated to Morehouse School of Medicine – the alma mater of GMCC Chairman, Dr. Christopher Edwards.

Dr. Christopher Edwards, GA Access to Medical Cannabis Commission Chair
Dr. Christopher Edwards, GA Access to Medical Cannabis Commission Chair(CBS46)

“It’s either generosity with strange timing or it’s something else,” Lee added.

Both Trulieve and Morehouse School of Medicine deny those allegations, sending CBS46 Investigates the following statements.

“A partnership with a historically black college or university was a consideration of the license applications. This partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine satisfied that requirement and was not announced until after the deadline for the application had passed. Social equity and economic empowerment are core to what we do in every community that Trulieve has the privilege to serve, and we look forward to expanding upon this in Georgia as we prepare to bring medical cannabis to patients across the Peach State.”

Rob Kremer, Corporate Communications, Trulieve

“While Dr. Christopher Edwards carries the distinction of being a member of Morehouse School of Medicine’s Board of Trustees, he has not served in that capacity in several years. We are certainly proud of every alumnus, especially one who is a well-respected surgeon and pillar of the Atlanta community, but there is not now nor has there been a financial relationship with the institution. We are excited about of our innovative research partnership with Trulieve and it’s emblematic of our commitment to world class discovery and excellence in clinical care.”

Nicole Linton, Marketing and Communications, Morehouse School of Medicine

Meanwhile, medical marijuana licenses can not be finalized until protests are resolved. That will take time - time that thousands of patients may not have.

Jagger’s Story

Jagger Cotte suffers from a rare neurological disorder called Leigh’s Disease.

“He’s been through a lot,” said Sebastian Cotte, Jagger’s father. “He is nonverbal, never spoke in his life, he cannot hold his head up, he cannot walk, he is 100% handicapped.”

Doctors said he would not live past his 4th birthday. Today, Jagger is 11 years old. His dad, Sebastien, credits high CBD, low THC cannabis oil as the key to his progress.

“Right away, we saw some changes but the one thing I will never forget - Jagger had not smiled for a year before that - After two or three days on CBD, Jagger smiled again,” Cotte added.

Jagger Cotte suffers from a rare neurological disorder called Leigh’s Disease.
Jagger Cotte suffers from a rare neurological disorder called Leigh’s Disease.(CBS46)

Cotte moved from Atlanta to Colorado in 2014 so Jagger could be treated with cannabis oil. At that time, it was illegal to use cannabis for medicinal purposes in Georgia, while in Colorado, cannabis became fully legal in 2012. Now, medicinal cannabis is legal in Georgia, but there is still no place to buy it in the state. So, Cotte buys it from other states.

He’s been advocating for medical marijuana for years. In 2013, he and his wife even co-founded Georgia’s Hope, a group of mostly parents who fight for access to legal cannabis for their children.

As the years have dragged on, Cotte has grown frustrated with the delays, but he says he hasn’t given up.

“I’m still hopeful we’re gonna get it but it’s just taking forever,” Cotte said.

Oral arguments begin at 10 a.m. on Friday. Georgia Atlas is pushing for a preliminary injunction to stop the commission from going forward with the licenses, while the GMCC is pushing to dismiss the case.

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