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Medical marijuana gains traction in the Deep South

2/14/2014, 10:57 a.m.
Medical marijuana has been a non-starter in recent years in the Deep South, where many Republican lawmakers feared it could ...
In a Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 file photo, medical marijuana advocates Shannon Cloud, left, from Smyrna, Ga., hugs Corey Lowe, as Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, right, receives a congratulatory handshake after he introduced a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana after a Georgia Legislative session in the House chamber, in Atlanta. Both Cloud and Lowe have children suffering from disease and believe marijuana can help relieve their pain. Photo by John Amis/AP.

ATLANTA (AP) - Medical marijuana has been a non-starter in recent years in the Deep South, where many Republican lawmakers feared it could lead to widespread drug use and social ills. That now appears to be changing, with proposals to allow a form of medical marijuana gaining momentum in a handful of Southern states.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and this year powerful GOP lawmakers in Georgia and Alabama are putting their weight behind bills that would allow for the limited use of cannabis oil by those with specific medical conditions. Other Southern states are also weighing the issue with varying levels of support.

The key to swaying the hearts of conservative lawmakers has been the stories of children suffering up to 100 seizures a day whose parents say they could benefit from access to cannabidiol, which would be administered orally in a liquid form. And proponents argue the cannabis oil is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes users feel high.

"I'm an unlikely champion for this cause,'' said Georgia Rep. Allen Peake, a businessman from Macon who attended the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary. "Once people realize it's not a 6-year-old smoking a joint, most folks realize this is the compassionate thing to do.''

Peake's bill has already earned the backing of more than 80 state lawmakers, including several members of the House Republican leadership, who signed on as co-sponsors and the state's largest professional association of doctors. The bill would revive a long-dormant research program allowing academic institutions to distribute the medical cannabis and would be "limited in scope, tightly restricted, well regulated and managed by doctors,'' Peake said.

Alabama Rep. Mike Ball, a retired hostage negotiator for the State Patrol, is behind a bill that would allow people to possess the cannabis oil if they have certain medical conditions. It passed a key committee vote on Wednesday.

"The public is starting to understand what this is,'' said Ball, who chairs a powerful House committee and is a prominent voice on law enforcement issues. "The political fear is shifting from what will happen if we pass it, to might what happen if we don't,'' Ball said.

The bills in Georgia and Alabama still have more vetting, and their ultimate prospects are not certain. But what is happening offers a strong signal of what's to come in other states.

In Louisiana, although a bill has yet to be introduced, a recent committee hearing at the Capitol on legalizing medical marijuana drew a standing-room-only crowd, and Gov. Bobby Jindal made comments last month indicating he was willing to consider it.

"When it comes to medical marijuana ... if there is a legitimate medical need, I'd certainly be open to making it available under very strict supervision for patients that would benefit from that,'' Jindal said, according to a report in The Advocate.

Technically, both Georgia and Louisiana have laws on the books from the 1980s and 1990s that allow for the use of medical marijuana, but those programs essentially ended before they could start. Georgia's law established the academic research program for those diagnosed with glaucoma and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, but the program stalled when the federal government stopped delivery of legal cannabis.