First medical cannabis dispensaries open in Georgia

ATLANTA – Two medical cannabis dispensaries are open for business in Georgia, just days after the state agency in charge of the state’s medical marijuana program issued the first five dispensary licenses.

Trulieve Georgia held grand openings Friday for dispensaries in Macon and Marietta. The two facilities will be open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. seven days a week.

“Today is a new beginning for the over 27,000 registered medical patients in Georgia,” Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers said. “Trulieve is equally thrilled and humbled to bring the first two medical cannabis dispensaries in the state serving both the Macon and Marietta communities in their health and wellness journey.”

Trulieve and a second company, Botanical Sciences LLC, were awarded medical cannabis manufacturing licenses last September to grow marijuana in up to 100,000 square feet of indoor space and convert the leafy crop into low-THC oil for patients suffering from various diseases. The two companies have been working to ramp up production at plants in Adel and Glennville, respectively.

Under legislation the General Assembly enacted in 2019, each of the two was authorized to open up to five dispensaries until the number of patients registered with the state to receive the oil reached 25,000. With the registry now up to more than 27,000 patients, Trulieve and Botanical Sciences will be allowed to add a sixth dispensary.

Trulieve has announced plans to open additional dispensaries in Columbus, Newnan, and Pooler. A notice on Botanical Sciences’ website indicates it will announce locations of its dispensaries soon.

In addition to the two Class 1 manufacturing licenses the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission has awarded to Trulieve and Botanical Sciences, the agency has tentatively awarded four Class 2 licenses allowing other manufacturers to grow in indoor plots of up to 50,000 square feet. Those licenses are being held up by lawsuits filed by losing bidders alleging the selection process was flawed.

The long list of diseases that qualify patients for cannabis oil includes end stage cancer, seizure disorders, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, sickle-cell anemia, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Push to grow Georgia music industry fizzles under Gold Dome

ATLANTA – Supporters of Georgia’s music industry entered this year’s General Assembly session optimistic lawmakers would renew state tax incentives to lure music producers and create a state office dedicated to promoting the industry.

But after a single committee hearing, nothing happened. The House Creative Arts & Entertainment Committee approved the measure to create a statewide music office. But it failed to reach the House floor for a vote, while the tax incentives bill didn’t even get a committee vote.

“Nobody wanted to talk about tax credits,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, chief sponsor of the tax incentives bill.

Both bills were the product of a joint House-Senate study committee that met last year to look for ways to grow Georgia’s music industry.

The panel recommended that lawmakers renew the existing music industry tax credit – which was due to expire at the end of the year – at 30% to 35% of a music production’s expenses and lower the spending thresholds needed for producers of live shows and music recordings to qualify for the tax credit.

The committee also suggested creating a statewide music office separate from the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Film, Music, and Entertainment Office after members heard testimony on the success of the state music office in Texas.

While the film office has been highly successful in helping make Georgia a leading hub for movie and TV productions, it hasn’t been as successful with the music industry, said Mala Sharma, president of Georgia Music Partners, the state’s leading music industry advocacy organization.

“We’ve lost billions by allowing other states to take our studios and artists,” she said.

During a hearing the Creative Arts and Entertainment Committee held in February, Rep. Tyler Paul Smith, R-Bremen, said a standalone music office is essential if Georgia is to take full advantage of its rich music history.

“House Bill 549 will help the Georgia music industry grow, prosper and compete with music states like California, Texas, Tennessee, and New York by providing one central point of contact for music in our state,” said Smith, the bill’s chief sponsor.

But in an interview on April 25, Smith told Capitol Beat his bill ran into some headwinds.

“There were some arguments this would already be covered by the film [office],” he said.

“I hope we have conversations [before the 2024 session] on it because what they’ve done in Texas shows the model works,” Carpenter added.

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s tax incentives bill – House Bill 393 – ended up a victim of poor timing. With a newly created legislative committee about to undertake a cost-benefit review of every state tax credit on the books, lawmakers weren’t in the mood to consider tax credit legislation during this year’s session, he said.

Sharma said her group will be working to build support for the legislation next year.

“We must invest in music alongside film and digital entertainment,” she said. “Music is economic development.”

Kemp signs bills targeting workforce shortages

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp has signed a series of bills aimed at helping to fill the new jobs created by a wave of economic development in Georgia.

“The demand for a well-educated and skilled workforce has never been higher than it is today,” Kemp said Thursday during a signing ceremony on the campus of West Georgia Technical College in Newnan. “I am proud to sign legislation that will streamline access to opportunity and help us fill the record-breaking number of jobs on their way to Georgia.”

The governor signed a half dozen bills in all, including two measures establishing loan repayment programs for medical examiners and nursing instructors. Both the medical examiner and nursing fields have been plagued by workforce shortages in recent years.

A third bill will streamline the process for issuing occupational licenses for new workers moving to Georgia.

Kemp also signed legislation creating a three-year pilot program to help dual enrollment students gain access to HOPE Grant funds to pursue courses leading to high-demand professions. Another bill will change the ACT test requirements for high-achieving students pursuing Zell Miller Scholarships to align with SAT test requirements.

Finally, Senate Bill 3 is intended to lower the barriers for recruiting employees to state government positions to help alleviate worker shortages.

All six bills sailed through the state House and Senate with minimal opposition.

Colleges get creative to address Georgia’s workforce shortage 

ATLANTA – With Georgia facing a serious shortage of workers in key industries, the state’s higher education institutions are finding creative solutions to attract, retain and graduate more skilled workers.  

The challenge has been compounded by the lingering effects of pandemic-era learning loss, said Timothy Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University (GSU). 

At GSU, the percentage of students who fail classes has increased since the pandemic, Renick said Thursday during a forum hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.  

“We’re facing a generation of students, even the success stories who made it into college, who potentially will be much more vulnerable for proceeding and getting their degree,” he said.  

Despite the challenges, Georgia State has made a serious commitment to student success that has resulted in improved graduation rates.  

GSU invested in predictive analytics about a decade ago, Renick said, and uses the data to track hundreds of markers of student success. When a student is identified as potentially struggling, the university reaches out to the student to provide support.  

It also deployed an artificial intelligence (AI) platform in 2016 to answer student questions. Renick said within the first three months, students engaged with the program 180,000 times, often at night when it typically would be difficult to connect with university staff.  

“What we’ve been able to do with some of these new technologies is at least come closer to leveling the playing field to deliver personalized attention to students at scale on a day-to-day basis,” he said.  

Georgia State also pioneered the use of retention grants, scholarships that are automatically provided to students who are close to graduating but whose HOPE scholarships have ended.  

“We know which students are making good progress and are close to graduating,” Renick said. “So we started just putting the money in their account.”  

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation replicating that program across the state.

Georgia State’s National Institute for Student Success is now serving as a consultant to 42 other colleges and universities to help them develop systematic approaches to preventing students from dropping out of college. 

Like Georgia State, Gordon State College has sought to create wraparound solutions to help students graduate. The college has campuses in Barnesville, McDonough and Griffin. 

College leaders recognized the area faced a nursing shortage and entered into a partnership with the Henry County school system and Piedmont Henry Hospital to try to address the problem.  

“We got into a room and we said, ‘Let us build a pipeline that would, one, reduce the cost of a degree, two, accelerate the time to degree and, three, add a layer of stickiness … to keep the final worker local,” Gordon State President Kirk Nooks said. 

The resulting Community Innovation Partnership Program allows Henry County students to dual enroll at Gordon State and graduate with an associate degree in nursing at the same time they graduate from high school.  

Five students who complete their associate degree will also be offered guaranteed admission to Gordon State’s nursing program. Gordon State also offers scholarship support to students along the way so that financial barriers don’t prevent students from finishing their degrees.  

After students earn their associate degree, they can start working at the hospital and take advantage of employee tuition-reimbursement programs while they earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Gordon State, Nooks added.

“If everything goes according to plan, that student now becomes an employee full time and the stickiness factor is there,” he said.  

Georgia school districts and colleges should team up to develop strategic plans to get more students into higher educational institutions and the workforce in the way that Gordon State and Henry County schools worked together on the nursing program, Nooks said. 

Columbus Technical College has focused on accelerating students’ time to completion and created a plethora of options to meet working students’ needs.  

About three-quarters of Columbus Tech’s students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and the average student age is 25, President Martha Ann Todd said.

“Our students are for the most part older students, many of them supporting families or supporting themselves,” she said. “So we want to make it as easy as possible for our students to get quality training, the skills that they need, and go to work as quickly as possible.” 

Todd said that going forward, Columbus Tech will be working with local employers to shorten timeframes even further.  

For example, the college has developed a one-semester program to train certified nursing assistants and plans to develop an even shorter, four-week program.  

Columbus Tech has also developed a one-semester program to train child development associates to help meet the state’s child-care shortage. The program offers grants to people enrolled through a partnership with the Georgia Department Early Care and Learning.  

The college recently rolled out micro-credential badges that allow students to prove their proficiency in a specific skill. These have been very popular with both students and employers, Todd said.  

Todd said she would like to see other technical colleges replicate Columbus’ micro-credentialing programs as well as its “quick-start” approach to training.  

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

State awards first licenses to medical cannabis dispensaries

ATLANTA – Georgia’s medical marijuana program is a step closer to providing low-THC cannabis oil to patients suffering from a range of diseases.

The state agency in charge of the program granted the first five dispensing licenses Wednesday to two companies that have already been awarded manufacturing licenses. Botanical Sciences LLC and Trulieve Georgia will open the dispensaries in Marietta, Macon, and Pooler.

“This historic milestone will provide Georgia patients on the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Low-THC Oil Patient Registry with legal access to medical cannabis,” said Sid Johnson, board chairman of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission.

“We appreciate the support and patience for the work of the commission as we worked through the process required by law to ensure safe and quality access to medical cannabis.”

“Our [Class 1 production] licensees, Botanical and Trulieve, have been working hard to get
their production facilities fully operational,” added Andrew Turnage, the commission’s executive director.

“They have each signaled they are ready to sell to registered patients by applying for these initial dispensing licenses. We look forward to joining the two companies for their dispensary grand openings as they begin to provide low-THC oil and products to Georgia patients.”

Botanical Science and Trulieve were awarded licenses last September to grow marijuana in up to 100,000 square feet of indoor space and convert the leafy crop into low-THC oil. The two companies are planning to get their manufacturing plants up and running this spring.

The commission’s rules require dispensaries to pass a pre-operational inspection before dispensing low-THC oil and products to patients who have registered with the state.

The rules also require dispensaries to be fully operational within 120 days of the date the dispensing license is issued. The time frame is necessary to give dispensaries time to train employees and prepare an inventory of lab-tested oil.

It has taken years to get the medical cannabis program to this point. While Botanical Sciences and Trulieve are making progress toward full commercial operation, the commission has been unable to award four Class 2 production licenses authorized by legislation the General Assembly passed in 2019.

Those licenses – for growing marijuana on smaller indoor plots of up to 50,000 square feet – are being held up by lawsuits filed by losing bidders alleging the selection process was flawed.

The number of registered patients affects the number of dispensaries the commission can license. State law authorizes the commission to issue up to five initial dispensing licenses to each production licensee.

The agency is authorized to issue a sixth dispensing license to each production licensee when the Low-THC Oil Patient Registry reaches 25,000 registered patients and an additional dispensing license for every 10,000 patients added after 25,000. With more than 27,000 registered patients currently on the list, the state can issue up to six dispensing licenses to each production licensee.

“We are hopeful that the commission will be able to issue Class 2 production licenses to our top scoring applicants this year and pave more ways to provide Georgia patients with access to medical cannabis,” Turnage said. “The work of the commission has always been focused on ‘access’ as mentioned in the agency’s name … and we are committed to ensuring that [patients] receive the relief that they have waited years for.”

Patients eligible to receive cannabis oil include those suffering from seizure disorders, Parkinson’s disease, terminal cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and sickle-cell anemia.