A day after Gov. Nathan Deal effectively ended the push this year to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, a top Democratic contender for his job outlined a policy that would make it vastly easier for patients to obtain the drug.
Former state Rep. Stacey Evans said Wednesday she would press to legalize the in-state cultivation of medical marijuana and give doctors more leeway to prescribe cannabis oil. She said it would also provide a boost to Georgia’s economy by fostering a new agricultural industry.
“It’s time to expand the use of medical cannabis in Georgia,” said Evans. “We cannot let the fear of change stop us from helping Georgia families.”
Deal said in an interview this week that legislation to legalize in-state cultivation of medical marijuana needed more safeguards to prevent abuse, and he urged supporters to appeal to Congress to change the law that makes it illegal to grow the drug and transport it across state lines.
His remarks forced Republican state Rep. Allen Peake, who wrote the state’s medical marijuana law, and the families of children suffering from debilitating diseases seeking easier access to the drug to shift their focus to the next governor.
The state’s program, created in 2015, makes it legal for people suffering from cancer and more than a dozen other illnesses to possess small amounts of cannabis oil if a physician signs off. Only about 3,500 Georgians have signed up, in part because of logistical and legal hurdles.
It’s illegal to cultivate marijuana in Georgia, which means families must rely on benefactors or trek to states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes. That makes travel a tricky prospect, since federal law bans transporting the drug across state lines and bars possessing it.
The debate over expansion has split the gubernatorial field.
At GOP forums, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and former state Sen. Hunter Hill have each signaled their opposition to in-state cultivation. Two other Republican contenders, businessman Clay Tippins and state Sen. Michael Williams, say it should be easier for patients to access the drug.
And former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is Evans’ top Democratic rival, said Tuesday at a press conference announcing her criminal justice package that in-state cultivation should be viewed as a way to fight prescription drug abuse.
Evans said her policy was rooted in her brother Spencer’s battle with opiate addiction, and expressed frustration that the state hasn’t taken steps to broaden the program after years of debate.
She said her plan would give doctors more flexibility to prescribe cannabis oil to patients – “I want to err on the side of the discretion of the doctor,” she said – but stopped short of backing the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“Let’s focus on what Georgia families need now,” she said
Opponents of in-state cultivation often bring up a slippery slope argument, worrying that expanding the law could eventually pave the way to legalization of recreational use of marijuana. The governor said a new federal law to “give the states more flexibility” on medical marijuana could clarify the situation.
Evans brushed aside those concerns.
“To me, expanding medical cannabis is not a slippery slope. Anytime you’re talking about doing something new, there are folks who say it’s a step too far,” she said, adding: “The slippery slope is what we make of it.”
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