Inside the fight for medical marijuana in GA, SC

(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
Workers bottle hemp oil at Palmetto Harmony (Source: Raycom)
Workers bottle hemp oil at Palmetto Harmony (Source: Raycom)
(Source: Raycom)
(Source: Raycom)

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Most Georgia lawmakers are getting on board with a nationwide wave of medical marijuana and seeing its benefit.

A bill adding six conditions to the list of those that qualify for the drug is headed to the governor's desk.

Two years after the legalization of medical marijuana, though, Georgia's law still has a gaping hole.

On one hand, it's legal if your medical condition qualifies you. On the other hand, it's illegal to grow it, buy it or distribute it in Georgia. That's something Governor Nathan Deal may never budge on. At least one state lawmaker wants to let the voters decide.

Inside a small lab near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, workers carefully measure out oil and fill bottles.

"Harmony, as soon as I started giving it to her, her seizures stopped," said Janel Ralph.

Palmetto Harmony's owner, Janel Ralph, gave cannabis oil to her daughter two years ago. She opened her facility, Palmetto Harmony, shortly after. They're not producing marijuana there. They're using hemp instead. The crop is grown at a federally-compliant farm in Kentucky. The oil is extracted and then shipped here where it's packaged and sent out.

"That's what people don't quite understand. When you're growing compliant as a hemp product, you're hemp, just like you could go into any Whole Foods and buy a hemp product, you can at Palmetto Harmony," said Ralph.

Word of this product made its way to the Coastal Empire. Brian Palmer heard of it. His newborn daughter was in dire need.

"We knew immediately that something was wrong. She came out not breathing, not crying," said Palmer.

The journey took the family to hospitals, doctors offices, and through seven different medications. Nothing quite worked liked this hemp oil.

"She went from having hundreds of seizures a day sometimes a couple every minute to having probably a 100 a day," said Palmer.

He said she needs something stronger. Now, Palmer and Ralph are behind efforts to allow medical marijuana in their respective states.

"We're talking about people that modern medicine has failed them, and this will give them relief," said Ralph.

"It definitely would change my life. I would be able to give my daughter what would help her," said Palmer.

Georgia lawmakers are a little ahead of South Carolina's right now. Macon representative Allen Peake is a big reason for that.

"I get a note or an email or a phone call almost daily from someone who has benefited from the passage of Haleigh's hope act," said Representative Peake, a Republican from Macon.

Peake sponsored Haleigh's Hope Act in 2015—allowing certain patients to use medical CBD oil with THC levels 5 percent or lower. Peake said the program was a massive success for its 1,300 participants.

"The logical next step was why wouldn't we expand the law to allow more citizens with debilitating illnesses to be able to access medical cannabis oil or legally possess medical cannabis oil here in Georgia," said Peake.

That's what Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Savannah doctor Ben Watson, does. The bill and current law are still far from perfect.

"We still have a gaping hole in our law and that's access to the product," said Peake. "We're still causing Georgians to break a federal law if they go somewhere else and bring it back into our state, or in many cases, they're buying the plant off the streets and making it themselves."

Agreeing on how to regulate and allow this is a major source of disagreement for politicians. Many Republicans, backed by law enforcement and faith groups, are against growing marijuana.

"Let Georgians decide. Should we grow marijuana in our state for medicinal purposes only," said Peake. "I feel strongly that if it goes on the ballot in November of 2018, it will pass with overwhelming support."

For parents, like Palmer, seeing that on the ballot and seeing it passed would be life-changing.

"My heart would probably skip a beat. I wouldn't be able to believe it except actually seeing it there in black and white," said Palmer.

It is a decision for Georgia voters that some say could prove to be a lifesaver for thousands of others.

Peake proposed the ballot resolution this year. Two-thirds of the house and senate would have to pass it before sending it to the ballot during the 2018 elections. If passed, it would be up to our next governor to implement a system.

South Carolina lawmakers are working on a comprehensive plan to allow the cultivation, distribution, and use of medical marijuana. Senator Tom Davis is sponsoring the senate bill, Senate Bill 212. The house bill is HB 3521. They are both in the early stages with committee hearings.

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