ATLANTA – In 2019, the General Assembly created a commission to launch a medical marijuana program in Georgia by awarding licenses to companies to grow the leaf crop and convert it into low-THC cannabis oil.

Three years later, not a single patient has received a single dose. Despite the tentative granting of six licenses last summer, the initiative is mired in legal protests filed by companies denied licenses claiming the selection process was flawed.

“It’s the most maddening process I’ve ever seen,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee.

Now, Powell is pushing legislation he says would resolve the legal issues and get the program on track.

House Bill 1400 would increase the number of licenses the state awards from six to as many as 28. That would allow the 16 companies that have filed protests to reapply for a license rather than pursue their protest in court and cause further delays, Powell testified during two days of hearings on the bill.

“It’s time we do what’s necessary to fix a broken system,” he said.

The more than 20,000 Georgia patients who have registered with the state Department of Public Health to receive low-THC cannabis oil are frustrated they haven’t been able to get the drug three years after the legislature created the program.

Under the 2019 bill, patients suffering from a variety of diseases qualify for low-THC cannabis oil. The list includes cancer, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle-cell anemia. 

Dale Jackson, the father of a teenage son with autism, took lawmakers to task during one of the hearings for failing to keep their promise to provide a legal pathway for Georgians to get the oil.

“We were told, ‘Just do it right. Just follow the process,’ ” Jackson told members of a House subcommittee assigned to consider Powell’s bill. “You lied to us. … This problem has to be fixed. This has to end.”

Several lawyers representing companies denied licenses to produce low-THC oil spoke out in support of the bill during the two hearings.

Kellen Carr, representing Georgia Bioscience Research, one of the companies protesting denial of its license application, said limiting the number of licenses will drive up the costs of the oil, which is not covered by insurance.

“The only thing that keeps costs down in this industry is marketplace competition,” she said.

Kristen Goodman, representing Symphony Medical, another protester, said the six licenses that were granted went to large out-of-state companies with plans for cannabis oil-producing operations concentrated in Middle Georgia.

“The north half of the state is not represented at all, nor is the southwest corner,” added Wesley Dunn, representing Revolution Georgia, another company denied a license.

Andrew Turnage, executive director of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment on Powell’s bill. But during a commission board meeting last month, he said the commission supports expanding the number of licenses.

Powell’s bill got some pushback during the hearings over whether granting more licenses would mean caving in to the threat of lawsuits from companies denied licenses.

“I am deeply concerned we are rewarding people simply for having the ability to file a lawsuit,” said Rep. Michael Smith, D-Marietta.

But others on the subcommittee said increasing licenses to get low-THC oil to patients sooner rather than later should be the overriding consideration.

“We’ve got children who are sick and hurting all over this state and need this to make a difference in their life,” said Rep. Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville. “We need to make this happen.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.