State Sen. Bill Cowsert

ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at moving ahead with Georgia’s long-delayed medical marijuana program cleared a state Senate committee Thursday but with significant changes from a bill the Georgia House passed early this month.

The version of House Bill 196 House lawmakers approved March 6 called for increasing the number of medical cannabis production licenses the state awards to 15, up from the current six. That would have let nine companies that filed lawsuits after they were denied licenses a new opportunity to compete.

But the Senate Regulated Industries Committee scrapped that provision from the bill after representatives of two companies already awarded licenses to grow marijuana in Georgia and convert the leafy crop to low-THC cannabis oil testified they will be able to provide more than enough oil to Georgia patients registered with the state to receive the drug.

Officials with Botanical Sciences LLC and Trulieve Georgia are currently ramping up their operations in Glennville and Adel, respectively, and plan to have cannabis oil available no later than June.

“It looks like we have enough capacity for up to 1 million patients already, and we only have 26,000 to 27,000 patients on the list,” committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said Thursday.

The House bill introduced by state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, also got pushback for essentially promising the nine companies that went to court after they lost bids for licenses that they would get licenses if they agreed to drop their lawsuits. Powell argued that otherwise the companies could tie up the medical cannabis program in court for years, forcing patients in dire need of the drug to go without it.

“We are not just statutorily going to award licenses to protesters that lost,” Cowsert said.

The Senate committee did respond to Powell’s criticism of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, the state agency created in 2019 to oversee the state’s medical marijuana program. The commission has come under fire for delays first in awarding licenses and subsequently for a licensing process that prompted so many lawsuits.

A House committee passed separate legislation this week abolishing the commission and turning over responsibility for medical cannabis to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

However, the Senate committee stopped short of getting rid of the commission. The bill the panel passed Thursday instead instructs the agriculture department to examine how the commission has handled its duties and make recommendations by Dec. 1 that may or may not include abolishing it.

The bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote next week. With key differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation, a joint conference committee likely will be needed to try to reach a compromise by Wednesday, when the General Assembly adjourns for the year.