People with HIV and AIDS might find themselves eligible to receive medical marijuana if Georgia lawmakers pass a proposal that expands the list of medical conditions that can be treated with it.
State Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican, has championed medical marijuana legislation for several years, ultimately pushing through Haleigh’s Hope Act in 2015. But an effort to expand the legislation – and the conditions medical marijuana could treat – stalled last year in part over opposition from Gov. Nathan Deal.
But Peake recently introduced two medical marijuana bills and said he's optimistic that Deal will support expanding the conditions covered in the law, including adding HIV and AIDS.
“There’s about 1,300 people that are registered on the registry now,” Peake said. “People are being helped. We don’t have people high on medical cannabis oil driving around, so why not allow more citizens to have access to it? That’s where we come up with, ‘Why don’t we add six more conditions to the existing law,’ and one of those was HIV and AIDS.”
In addition to HIV and AIDS, Peake's House Bill 65 would also expand the list of medical conditions to include Tourette's syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's disease. Current law allows eight conditions – cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizures from head trauma, Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn's, Parkinson's, mitochondrial disease and sickle cell disease.
Peake said adding HIV/AIDS mirrors medical marijuana laws in place in other states.
“We tried to be consistent with what is done in other states. There’s 28 states that have full blown medical cannabis laws, there’s another dozen or so that has low THC oil laws, similar to what Georgia [law] is,” Peake said.
“So we took a look at, ‘OK what’s the consistent medical diagnoses that are included in most of those states?’, and [in] almost all of the states, AIDS and HIV is on there,” Peake said.
HIV/AIDS has been included in previous versions of the legislation, but were later removed or the bill failed. Peake said it will be up to advocates to make the case for keeping HIV/AIDS in the legislation.
“If no one advocates for this from the public arena it may be difficult to continue to keep it on the list,” Peake said. “And so I would encourage folks who maybe have AIDS or HIV, who have used medical cannabis as an option to deal with the wasting and the pain that is associated with that, to come forward and to tell their story.”
“Otherwise if no one wants it, if no one demands it, there would be a potential likelihood that it could be removed from the bill,” Peake added.
Peake has also authored House Resolution 36, which would put the issue of medical marijuana to a statewide vote to amend the Georgia Constitution. The measure would allow the public to vote on allowing in-state production and sale of cannabis medicine with tax revenue from the sale earmarked for drug treatment programs.
Peake said he hopes the resolution becomes an issue in the governor's race in 2018.
“Whoever is running for governor in 2018, they’re going to have to deal with this issue. Because if it gets on the ballot, it’ll pass with 70 percent of the vote, I feel pretty confident,” Peake said.
An AJC poll in early January showed that 71 percent of respondents supported expanding medical marijuana in Georgia to include an in-state harvesting program. Current state law allows for the possession of medical marijuana but not the cultivation of it or transporting it across state lines to get it here.
Besides Peake's two proposals, a third medical marijuana bill was introduced. Senate Bill 16 from Sens. Ben Watson and Renee Unterman, both Republicans, seeks to reduce the legal THC level from 5 percent to 3 percent. Peake said he doesn’t see the need for such a reduction, but is glad the Senate is considering the issue.
“You know most of the time we would change an existing law to fix a problem, why are we going backwards from a 5 percent to 3 percent when there doesn’t appear to be any problem?” Peake asked. “I’m glad the Senate has recognized that we need to expand the law by adding conditions. The THC level is just going to have to be a debate as it makes its way over here.”
The Senate bill adds autism spectrum disorder to the list of approved conditions for medical marijuana, but not HIV/AIDS.
Peake's two bills have been sent to the Medical Cannabis Working Group, which Peake chairs. From there the bills will head to committee to be further vetted before a possible floor vote.
Peake said he's confident that Deal would sign legislation expand the conditions eligible for medical marijuana.
“I have had discussion with Gov. Deal about the expansion bill. He seems to be supportive of taking the existing law and adding more medical conditions to it. So I feel confident that [if] that bill reaches his desk it will get signed,” Peake said.