Medical Cannabis Bill Fails to Pass Georgia Legislature



(APN) ATLANTA — On Thursday, March 20, 2014, the last day of the Georgia General Assembly, the medicinal cannabis oil bill, HB 885, failed when the Assembly adjourned for the Session without passing the bill.


The night was filled with hope for dozens of parents and other activists who lobbied at the Gold Dome, but ended with deep disappointment, especially for the many families across Georgia who almost got in-state access to the medicine that would save their children from numerous seizures daily, and maybe save their very lives.

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“We did not bring our kids to the Capitol for sympathy, we brought them here to have the choice of a medicine that could potentially help our children.  By the end, we were only asking to not be prosecuted for giving our child a medicine she needs,” Sarah Caruso told Atlanta Progressive News.  Caruso’s five year-old daughter has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.


As APN has covered over the course of the Legislative Session, HB 885 passed not only the House but the Senate Committee.


“We got six no’s out of hundreds of votes and it [HB 885] went nowhere.  One person [State Sen. Renee Unterman] stood in the way of it and it hurt.  We have a year to campaign with other parents, who have children with seizures disorders, and together we will fight this fight,” Anthony Caruso told APN.  


Thus ends the strange odyssey of HB 885, the medicinal cannabis oil bill, also known as Haleigh’s Hope, which, at one point, would have provided medicinal oil for children with uncontrollable seizures.


The defeat of HB 885 was a big surprise.  The bill had passed every committee, and, in different versions, both the full House and full Senate, with over 98 percent of the entire General Assembly voting for it.  How could such a popular bill that enjoyed bipartisan support and would benefit so many children fail in the last hour?   


To understand how and why this happened, it is necessary to explain another bill, SB 397, which was also important to the health of children with autism.  This bill , sponsored by State Sen. Tim Golden (R-Valdosta), would require state-regulated health plans to cover the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of autism through the age of six years.


The autism bill, SB 397, moved through the Senate with the greatest of ease, until it crossed over to the House, where it failed.


The downfall of HB 885 started in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee when State Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) insisted that the language of SB 397 be attached to HB 885.  It passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee, with the autism amendment attached.   The next stop was the full Senate vote on Thursday night.


On the last night of the Session, Sen. Unterman took to the Senate floor.


“Our Senate position is that the medical marijuana bill goes nowhere without the autism amendment.  We want the children of Georgia with autism spectrum disorder to be able to have access to care, and have therapeutic services,” Sen. Unterman said.   


Reform is needed on the federal level to move cannabis, or marijuana, out of the Schedule One category, to bring consistency to producing the medicine, and to develop a list of criteria of diseases and conditions that can be helped with medical marijuana.


The full Senate passed HB 885 with a vote of 54 to 0 and the legislation was sent back to the House.


The House had previously rejected the autism bill, because it was seen as increasing the cost of health insurance for small businesses.


State Rep. Peake (R-Macon), the sponsor of HB 885, in desperation, attached the cannabis oil bill to another bill, SB 291, that related to services for the aging, and the autism amendment was not included.  SB 291 passed the House with a vote of 168 to 2.


It was sent back to the Senate, where Sen. Unterman announced that the medical marijuana issue had been assigned to a Senate Study Committee.


By then it was almost 11pm, with a little over an hour left before the midnight hour, when all remaining bills must be approved by both chambers in order to become law.  All hopes hung on a miracle that the Senate and House would compromise, but that did not happen.


The last hour passed with occasional eruptions of emotions.


“The children are suffering and you are unwilling to serve the citizens of Georgia,” someone shouted from the Senate floor.   


“All the House has to do is agree,” Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth), presiding over Senate, said.


The blame game went back and forth in the House and Senate chambers until the stroke of midnight when it was all over for another year.  


“I’m disappointed for him [Rep. Peake] and the families that care about this issue.  They are really two different kinds of bills [HB 885 and SB 397].  There was a great deal of concern about the autism bill in the small business community.  The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, that represents small business, had serious reservations about the bill as an insurance mandate.  Small businesses are already under a lot of uncertainly with the insurance climate that exists in Washington today with the federal Affordable Care Act.,” State Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) told a group of reporters.


“I’m quite sure the autism bill was killed by the heavy hand of the insurance industry.  Special interests, deep pocket lobby insurance industry did not want any bill to pass that made them offer coverage and lock them into it.  It raised the standard for coverage of children with autism.  Medical marijuana may have been an unfortunate victim of having the bills linked,” Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) told APN.


Many feel Sen. Unterman did not have to doom HB 885 by linking it to the autism provision that she knew would not pass the House.  


“There is something wrong when you play games with children’s lives,” Sarah Caruso said.


Other informed sources suggested to APN that conservative Republicans wanted to be counted as voting for helping children, but were personally horrified at the thought of marijuana, in any form, being used by the public.  They suggest that the bill was sabotaged on purpose.


“So many parents who have worked so hard and this is not the end for us.  We will be back next year.  Hopefully, we will not lose too many of our children by that time.  I feel like games were played with our children’s lives and that’s not okay,” Sarah Caruso said.


In the meantime, State Sen. Curt Thompson (D-Atlanta) has introduced new medical cannabis legislation that is much broader than HB 885, that is sure to be part of the dialogue next Session.


Alabama’s state legislature managed to pass its cannabidol oil legislation this year, and the bill is waiting for the Governor’s signature there.


Finally, in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal, who is facing a tough reelection battle, both at the Republican Primary and General Election stages, has made public statements indicating that he is looking for administrative ways–through Georgia’s executive branch of government–to bring about access to cannabidol oil in Georgia.



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