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Legal weed coming to Georgia?

The state's dormant medical marijuana program is primed for revival ... or maybe not

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Georgia's long, complicated relationship with medical marijuana took an interesting turn recently as the government board that oversees medical policy for the state quietly began enlisting doctors to help select patients for pot therapy.

Wait, you didn't know Georgia had a relationship with ganga? Well, old-timers should recall that, back in 1976, ex-Gov. Jimmy Carter campaigned for president with a pledge to decriminalize marijuana use. "Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself," Carter told Congress after being elected. "Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana in private for personal use."

And it just so happens that another of our state's favorite sons, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, co-authored the nation's very first bill to legalize marijuana as an, um, herbal remedy.

"We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and patients have a right to obtain marijuana legally, under medical supervision, from a regulated source," the then-congressman wrote in a 1981 letter that ran in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Man, what was he smoking?

Also in 1981, the Georgia Legislature passed the "Medical Marijuana Necessities Act," which mandated the creation of a state-run program through which qualified cancer and glaucoma patients would receive prescriptions of cannabis sativa.

So, what happened? Long story short, Reagan happened. The groovy '70s gave way to the uptight '80s, the DEA went on a hiring binge, "drug czar" became a recognizable job title and the entire nation got its buzz harshed.

Back in Georgia, the newly formed Patient Qualification Review Board, a state-appointed panel of physicians tasked with choosing which cancer patients could get stoned, was defunded and disbanded after approving only a small handful of test subjects whose names are lost to history. Legislators even went back and changed the name of the 1981 law to the "Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act" to downplay the connection to reefer and make it sound less fun.

The law, however, has remained on the state's books, meaning, theoretically, that qualified patients could enroll in clinical medical marijuana trials. Except that, without an active Patient Qualification Review Board, no one could be qualified as a patient. And without qualified patients, there was no need for any treatment.

In the 30 years since the passage of the pioneering Georgia law, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have allowed private medical marijuana dispensaries to pop up — most recently Colorado, no one's idea of a blue state. And public sentiment regarding the use of medical marijuana has similarly shifted. In 2009, President Obama pledged that the federal government wouldn't interfere with programs set up by individual states. And even ex-Congressman Bob Barr, once a major anti-weed crusader, has come out in favor of medical marijuana.

Back in Georgia, the legalization charge has been led by longtime pot activist Paul Cornwell, who has spent the last few years reminding the state medical board, a division of the Department of Community Health, that it's compelled by the 1981 law to reinstate the PQRB and resume the clinical trials begun three decades ago.

"Anyone who has a grandmother or friend wasting away from cancer or AIDS because they can't keep food down should favor compassionate relief," Cornwell explains.

Recently, he got his wish. On March 24, the state medical board oh-so-quietly issued a call for applicants — five doctors in various fields and one pharmacist — to be named to a reformed PQRB. Once that body is in place, perhaps within six months, Cornwell predicts that opening the door officially to widespread use of medical marijuana will be a no-brainer.

"Once the board reviews the past 30 years of studies that have been done, we'd expect them to recommend allowing medical marijuana to be used for a variety of ailments," he says.

But don't break out the roach clip just yet. There are mountains of hurdles standing in the way of that first toke, not the least of which is the original 1981 law itself, which requires that the pot be distributed by licensed pharmacies rather than through private dispensaries, as in other states. So, where is the neighborhood CVS going to get Maui Wowie?

"We're working on finding that information," says LaSharn Hughes, executive director of the state medical board. "We couldn't get it from a street grower or anything like that. The state Attorney General's office said we'd have to do something with the National Cancer Institute or some government entity. But I don't know yet."

And how would patients be selected? How would the dosages be administered? And how long should the trials continue before the PQRB is expected to issue a recommendation? Again, no one's certain.

"To be honest, I don't know much more than LaSharn does," explains Alexander Gross, chairman of the state medical board. "I've read the act and she's read the act, and basically the first thing we have to do is seat members for this review board. Then the review board will have to do some rules writing. Once all that gets done, then we can start looking at protocol."

But David Clark, a Gwinnett lawyer and former executive director of the Georgia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), doesn't believe the powers that be will allow the program to move forward as Cornwell hopes.

"During the 20 years I've been practicing, that law has been meaningless; it's never allowed a gram of medical marijuana, not a single joint to be distributed in Georgia," he says. "Maybe someone's getting some money to be on the board or something, but not one person is going to see a gram of medical marijuana distributed in Georgia."

Instead, he says, NORML is concentrating its efforts on working with lawmakers to ease prosecution for small quantities of pot.

Speaking of lawmakers, has Cornwell considered that Georgia's decidedly right-wing state Legislature is likely to freak out once it catches wind of what the state medical board is doing? After all, this is a state where it took years of fighting just to pass a bill to allow us to buy beer on Sundays.

"If the General Assembly tried to overturn the law and derail the medical marijuana program, that's the best thing that could happen," Cornwell says. "Polls show that the voting public overwhelmingly supports marijuana for treatment of serious illness."

If it's a showdown he wants, it's a good bet he won't be disappointed

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