ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at clearing up the legal morass that has delayed Georgia’s medical marijuana program for years died in the waning hours of this year’s General Assembly session, eventually a victim of its own weight.
The state Senate balked at major 11th-hour changes the Georgia House made to House Bill 196, including inserting an entirely different bill regarding the regulation of hemp products into the underlying medical cannabis measure.
Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, House Bill 196’s chief sponsor, took to the House floor Wednesday with a new version of the legislation calling for abolishing the commission lawmakers created in 2019 to oversee the medical cannabis program and turning over its duties to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
The commission has been criticized for taking too long to begin awarding licenses to companies to grow marijuana in Georgia and convert the leafy crop to low-THC oil for sale to patients suffering from a range of diseases.
But the version of the bill the Senate had passed earlier in the week stopped short of getting rid of the commission by authorizing the agriculture department to study how the commission was handling the program and return by Dec. 1 with recommendations.
“It seems unfair to unilaterally abolish a commission without holding any hearings on that,” Senate Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said Wednesday night when the bill got to the Senate floor.
The House bill also sought to address the rash of lawsuits filed by nine companies that lost bids for licenses that are holding up the licensing process by asking Commissioner of Agriculture Tyler Harper to mediate their complaints by May 31. Mediation could lead to those companies being awarded licenses if they agreed to drop the legal challenges, Powell said.
“We’re not saying the commission will give a license,” he said. “They can go through mediation.”
“This legislation will move the needle forward for all the people who have been patiently waiting for this medicine,” added Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville.
The House passed Powell’s bill 154-13 and sent it across the Capitol to the Senate.
But Cowsert said allowing the protesting companies to mediate their cases but not offering the same to the losing bidders that didn’t take their complaints to court smacks of favoritism.
“We punish those people who didn’t sue and reward the ones who sued,” he said.
The House bill did find some support in the Senate. An impatient Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, urged his Senate colleagues to pass Powell’s bill.
“This has been going on for four and a half years,” he said. “This bill is a solid bill that moves the state forward. It is time for us to get off the pot and deliver.”
But Cowsert cautioned patience. He cited testimony from the two companies that have been awarded medical cannabis licenses and expect to have the product on the shelves by June. They have said they will be able to supply 300,000 patients each, while the number of patients signed up on the state registry to receive the medicine is fewer than 30,000.
“We already have enough production for 20 times the people who are listed, who are signed on to the registry,” Cowsert said.
The final straw that irked senators as well as some House members was the 39-page medical cannabis bill had an additional 15 pages tacked onto the end concerning hemp products, which had not gone through the normal vetting in committee. The key provision in the bill would prohibit Georgians under age 21 from buying consumable hemp products with a THC content of more than 0.3%, including the popular Delta-8 gummies.
Senators first narrowly defeated a motion by Summers essentially to pass the House bill, then voted overwhelmingly to disagree with the House. That put the bill on a path to be resolved by a joint legislative conference committee, but time ran out on the 2023 session before that could happen.