Medical marijuana bill faces legislative hurdles

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The medical marijuana bill from a Macon Republican that could help Georgians living with HIV stalled in the state Senate last week. But it found new life tacked on to an old bill and through a nod from Gov. Nathan Deal.

The legislation from state Rep. Allen Peake expands the conditions that are eligible to be treated with cannabis oil to 15 by including HIV/AIDS, autism spectrum disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. The original version of Peake's bill also allowed for in-state cultivation but that piece was gutted before the legislation gained House approval 152-8 on Feb. 29. 

But state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican who chairs the Health & Human Services Committee, refused to hold a hearing on Peake’s House Bill 722. Unterman said during a committee meeting that she had, “talked with some of the families, I’ve committed to working with them during the off session and seeing what can be done.” 

“There just is not enough time to do all forty [bills] coming over from the House,” Unterman added. 

But this isn’t the first time Unterman has been a sticking point for medical marijuana legislation. A bill allowing research institutions to distribute medical marijuana was also held up in her committee during the 2014 session.

Without strong support from Senate leadership to move House Bill 722 forward, Peake resorted to a tried and true legislative tactic – attaching the medical marijuana language to a bill that already passed in the Senate.

Senate Bill 145, related to boards of community health, was gutted and then amended with language nearly identical to House Bill 722 during a House Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on March 15. That bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Josh McKoon, passed the Senate last year. 

Peake told Project Q Atlanta that the legislative maneuver means the new legislation won't need to go through the Senate committee hearing process. The Senate just has to agree or disagree with the rewritten House version once it passes that chamber. (It's similar to the tactic lawmakers used on March 16 when Republicans offered a rewritten House Bill 757 to push through an anti-gay “religious freedom” bill that the Senate quickly agreed with. McKoon voted for it, while Peake – who has a gay brother – was one of 10 GOP House members who voted against it.)

The House postponed action on Peake's legislation on Tuesday. And with Thursday as the last day of the legislative session, time is short. But the bill got a much needed boost on Tuesday from Gov. Nathan Deal. Via the AJC:

State Sen. Butch Miller, the governor’s floor leader, said late Tuesday that Deal is “neutral, at worst, on the bill” which is now pending in the Senate.'

“The governor’s office has expressed, from day one, a strong reluctance to growing and manufacturing marijuana in Georgia, but he’s always been sensitive to the needs of the families,” said Miller. “If it makes it to the finish line, I’m confident he’ll sign it into law.”

Peake told Project Q that he remained “hopeful.”

“I’m hopeful that the Senate will give an opportunity for those with Autism and AIDS and Tourette's syndrome and PTSD to have access to medical cannabis oil that is proving to be a life, game changer for hundreds of Georgians already,” Peake said.

Peake said he is “incredibly disappointed” his original medical marijuana bill did not get a hearing in the Senate, but has vowed to continue fighting for it.

UPDATE | The House passed the bill 157-7 on Thursday. It now moves to the Senate for an up or down vote.

UPDATE II | The Senate refused to take up Peake's measure in the closing hours of the legislative session. Via the AJC:

“Heartbroken.” That’s how state Rep. Allen Peake described his mood after the Georgia Senate refused to vote on his measure to expand the number of conditions eligible for coverage under the state’s medical marijuana program.

The Macon Republican darted back and forth from the House to the Senate most of the evening in hopes of forcing the chamber to take action. The maneuvering reached a fever pitch after state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she couldn’t schedule a hearing on the measure.

Peake, who is running for another term, made clear he was going to revive the effort next year. “Not giving up,” he tweeted.

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