Today, more than 18 states across the country have passed legislation allowing the use of medical marijuana. Georgia, oddly enough, was among the first. Yet for the last 33 years, the state has done virtually nothing to enact the law that would give thousands of cancer and glaucoma patients legal access to the plant.
In 1980, the Georgia General Assembly followed the lead of at least 16 other states and passed legislation allowing for the limited use of medical marijuana by people diagnosed with glaucoma and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. It was supported by then Lt. Gov. Zell Miller and signed into law by Gov. George Busbee.
The legislation was originally introduced after a woman named Mona Taft visited the General Assembly and told state lawmakers the story of her husband, Harris, a songwriter who was fighting cancer. He was reeling from chemotherapy's side effects, including severe vomiting. To ease the pain, Harris smoked some marijuana given to him by a friend. Mona said it was the only thing that helped.
"It is impossible for me to describe what a profound difference marijuana made," Taft told author Lester Grinspoon in his 1997 book Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine. "Before using marijuana, Harris felt ill all the time, could not eat. His mood, his manner, and outlook were transformed. Marijuana prolonged his life by allowing him to continue chemotherapy. In two years of smoking it, he never had an adverse reaction. Marijuana was the least dangerous drug my husband received during the nine years he was treated for cancer."
Members from both parties came together to support Taft, including then-state Sen. Paul Broun. According to a Feb. 14, 1980, Knight-Ridder wire report about the bill, Broun hugged Taft when the legislation passed the Senate. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Virlyn Smith, R-Fairburn, even told the widow that he'd recently given a constituent taking chemotherapy a recipe for marijuana-laced chocolate-chip cookies.
Under the law, the state created a program to study the effects of medical marijuana on cancer and glaucoma patients. The program was to be overseen by the Patient Qualification and Review Board, or PQRB. The board's governor-appointed members would review doctors and patients allowed to access cannabis for medical treatment. The marijuana would come from the University of Mississippi Marijuana Project, the nation's only federally approved pot farm.
But Georgia's medical marijuana program soon faced a major problem when the legal pot supply dried up. In 1982, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped delivery of the country's sole source of legal cannabis.
Georgia's program had effectively ended without ever supplying a single patient with the medical marijuana promised. Subsequent Georgia governors had the authority to reappoint the board, but never acted. As a result, the law has lingered on the books for the last 30 years.
But in 2010, a state appellate court ruled that the Georgia Composite Medical Board, not the governor, should appoint PQRB members. It was also decided that the medical board would administer Georgia's medical marijuana program, which is now known as the Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program. (The Legislature changed the name from "The Medical Marijuana Necessities Act" several years after passing the law.)
A state-certified pharmacy would be required by law to "manufacture and provide" medical-grade cannabis for the program. Georgia's medical marijuana law does not allow a "caregiver" or "dispensaries" to provide marijuana, or for patients to cultivate their own cannabis.
Upon discovering the court ruling, I, along with other marijuana activists, lobbied the composite board to follow the abandoned law, appoint the medical marijuana board, and start helping Georgia cancer and glaucoma patients legally obtain cannabis.
At first, we were met with resistance and outright hostility by the board's executive director. But we prevailed, convincing the board to review the legislation and restart the PQRB — the final requirement needed to provide cannabis under Georgia law.
PQRB applications have been open since 2010, but only three have been received since then. If you're a medical professional and willing to volunteer your time, details about applying for an open seat are available on the board's website. In addition, financial support from institutions and individuals in favor of "compassionate relief" to help fund the study is needed. Several state cannabis-reform organizations have started to contribute.
After more than three decades, Georgia is now on the verge of implementing its medical marijuana law. The PQRB can finally begin the state's long-denied study on the efficacy of medical marijuana, which other states have conducted for years. The research could help add to the list of ailments that can be improved by cannabis therapies, such as HIV/AIDS, so that further changes can be proposed to state legislation.
And Georgia shouldn't stop there. We need to introduce updated laws for medical marijuana based on successful legislation in other states, and begin discussing common-sense solutions that could reduce our prison population, including decriminalization of the drug.
The battle over what the cannabis nation will look like rages on. In Georgia, we have a law on the books, but it still remains to be seen when cancer and glaucoma patients here will have legal access to medical marijuana.
Note: This copy has been altered because of an editor's error. The state lawmaker who hugged Mona Taft was not current Congressman Paul Broun, but his father.