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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.

Louisiana's law allowed for glaucoma and cancer patients and those suffering from spastic quadriplegia to receive marijuana for therapeutic use but regulations to govern the program were never developed.

In Mississippi, Republican state Sen. Josh Harkins of Brandon is sponsoring a cannabis oil bill similar to the ones in Alabama and Georgia. Harkins said one of his constituents has a 20-month-old daughter with Dravet syndrome, a form of pediatric epilepsy, and the oil can help reduce the number of seizures.

Elsewhere, both Kentucky and Tennessee have medical marijuana bills under consideration although they have yet to gain traction. Kentucky Senate President Rover Stivers, R-Manchester, has said he's not convinced marijuana has legitimate medical purposes and called it an area ripe for abuse.

In Florida, it's likely to become a campaign issue in the fall given that Gov. Rick Scott is up for re-election and a proposed constitutional amendment will be on the ballot that would allow for the medical use of marijuana as determined by a licensed physician. Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat seeking to challenge Scott, has called it "an issue of compassion, trusting doctors and trusting the people of Florida.''

Meanwhile, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has signaled a willingness to discuss medicine that might be derived from marijuana with appropriate federal regulation.

"If someone wants to use the medicine that is in marijuana, go through the same testing that you have to go through when you do that through the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), you go through all of that, do the testing, the drug testing, that's fine,'' Bentley said last month. "I have no problem with that. I am not just for prescribing marijuana.''

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has declined to take a position, but noted the "strong case being presented by some of the families with very serious situations involving their children.''

Dustin Chandler, a police officer in Pelham, Ala., has been a major part of the effort there. His daughter, 2-year-old Carly, has three to five seizures each day from a severe neurological condition she has had since infancy. Chandler believes cannabidiol could help control his daughter's seizures and improve her cognitive functioning based on anecdotal evidence seen elsewhere.

"We've been battling the stigma from the m-word,'' Chandler said. "I'd love to hear my daughter talk. I'd love to hear her say one word. You know that is something most parents take for granted.''

Overall, public opinion in support of legalization has shifted in less than a decade, according to William Galston and E.J. Dionne, who co-wrote a paper last year on the topic for The Brookings Institution. The authors noted proponents were shrewd in focusing the earliest campaigns on efforts to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, citing a 2013 Pew Research Center survey that three-quarters of Americans, including 72 percent of Republicans, believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses.

Among critics' biggest concerns is that allowing medical marijuana even under a narrow list of circumstance would eventually open the door to widespread use. Peake, the Georgia lawmaker, has been adamant that will not be the case.

"I am concerned as anyone that we would get to a slippery slope of a broader scope of marijuana use in the state,'' Peake said. "I promise you I will fight that with every bit of energy in me.''

Georgia Rep. Terry England, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and a deacon at his Baptist church in Auburn, is a prime example of a state lawmaker who never thought of legalizing medical marijuana but is now open to it, even signing on as a co-sponsor to Peake's bill.

"I've not made a complete 180-degree turn, but I'm probably at 178 degrees,'' England said.

Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Ala., Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla., Ray Henry in Atlanta and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.