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‘Starting over’: New bill would restart Ga. stalled medical marijuana program

Two competing medical marijuana bills advance through the Georgia House and Senate on Crossover Day.
Published: Mar. 15, 2022 at 8:28 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Two key bills are hoping to transform Georgia’s medical marijuana program and tackle a licensing process that’s been stalled by legal challenges.

On Tuesday, also known as Crossover Day, both bills crossed over from the House to the Senate and vice versa.

Under Rep. Bill Werkheiser’s House Bill 1425, lawmakers would essentially cancel the current medical marijuana program and start from scratch - with a brand new application process conducted by the Department of Administrative Services.

Sen. Jeff Mullis’ Senate Bill 609 would require the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission to reevaluate already-submitted proposals and issue licenses to the six “highest qualified applicants” by May.

As CBS46 Investigates has reported, it’s 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.

Under Rep. Bill Werkheiser’s bill, lawmakers would essentially cancel the current medical...
Under Rep. Bill Werkheiser’s bill, lawmakers would essentially cancel the current medical marijuana program and start from scratch - with a brand new application process.(Rachel Polansky)

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

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.”

Under Rep. Werkheiser’s bill, even those six winners would have to re-apply.

“We don’t know if it’s perfect but if we don’t do anything we’re in a very bad place,” Representative Werkheiser said. “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to get the medicine into the patients’ hands.”

Rep. Werkheiser’s bill would also expand the number of licenses - based on increases to the number of registered patients in the state’s Low THC Oil Patient Registry.

“It grows as the number of licenses grow,” Representative Werkheiser said. “Every 10,000 additional patients, we’ll add one more large license and small license and we’ll keep doing that.”

Representative’s Alan Powell and Sharon Cooper had also proposed two different medical marijuana bills. Werkheiser tells CBS46 Investigates that he sat with Powell and Cooper to come up with the bill which crossed over Tuesday evening.

Senator Mullis' bill has passed unanimously in the Senate - meaning it now crosses over to the...
Senator Mullis' bill has passed unanimously in the Senate - meaning it now crosses over to the House.(Rachel Polansky)

Over in the Senate, Senate Bill 609 from Senator Jeff Mullis, is also calling for more licenses to be issued, based on the number of patients in the registry. But unlike Werkheiser’s bill, Mullis does not want to start the program over. Instead, he wants the commission to reevaluate already-submitted proposals and issue licenses to the “highest qualified applicants.” Mullis’ bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday morning - meaning it now crosses over to the House.

Once bills cross over, a lot can happen between now and the end of session that ends on April 4.

At the heart of all of this – families like Sebastian Cotte and his son Jagger. “We are not asking for the moon. We are asking for access like so many other states have,” Sebastian Cotte said.

Jagger Cotte suffers from a rare neurological disorder called Leigh’s Disease. “He is nonverbal, never spoke in his life, he cannot hold his head up, he cannot walk, he is 100% handicapped,” Cotte explained.

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.

Jagger Cotte
Jagger Cotte(Sebastien Cotte)

“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.

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.

He’s growingly increasingly frustrated – telling us that neither of these bills holds the answers.

“I don’t think they realize the impact that their horrible decision is going to have on so many people in Georgia,” Cotte said. “It’s disappointing, it’s upsetting.”

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