Everything Wrong With Georgia's Medical Marijuana Program

In spite of the vast, hard clinical evidence to back the efficacy of medical marijuana, and the high cost of enforcement, the state of Georgia remains stalwart in its continued rejection of legislation that would create medical marijuana dispensaries in Georgia or legalize marijuana altogether.

Georgia’s House of Representatives passed HB-1, the “Haleigh’s Hope Act” in 2015, effectively legalizing the use and possession of ONLY low THC oil (5% max) for patients with eight specific qualifying conditions. Qualifying conditions for a Georgia medical marijuana card were expanded in 2017 to include six more conditions, and additionally, two more in 2018 under HB-65. 

Nonetheless, Georgia still maintains some of the nation’s strictest marijuana laws. Possession of one ounce can result in a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

At present, only qualifying patients suffering from specific medical conditions can be approved for a Georgia medical marijuana card which allows them to possess and consume cannabis oil with a 5% THC content. 

Georgia’s medical marijuana cardholders may possess up to 20 fluid ounces of cannabis oil without risking prosecution by law enforcement. Ironically though, there is nowhere in Georgia to purchase the product, and those qualifying patients must buy it illegally. 

This convoluted law makes it extremely difficult for physically challenged, often terminally ill patients to obtain their medication and find relief.

Convoluted, color-coded, outdated laws

In a recent interview, Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff discussed the blatant hypocrisy of anti-marijuana legislators in his state. The senator was incredulous when he spoke of the opposing forces who continue to “take millions and millions [in political donations] from drug companies that produce highly addictive opiates that have ravaged this country” in addition to “millions from the alcoholic beverages industry, where alcohol is more destructive to the human body and mind than cannabis.” Voting to legalize marijuana would be a slap in the face to these big donors. 

Senator Osoff also blasted opposing lawmakers in the state for the disproportionate prosecution and incarceration of black residents as they continue to  “destroy their opportunities for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses,” he told Rolling Out. “Cannabis should be legalized, regulated, and taxed.”

“Marijuana is seen as an illegal substance, It’s a terrible irony and we feel it, that right now in America there are some folks who are becoming billionaires for selling the same stuff that’s got our children locked up all across America… Somebody’s gotta open up the jails and let our children go.” — Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock

Recently elected Senator Raphael Warnock echoed Ossoff in his support of a workable program for medical marijuana patients in Georgia. The senator has even discussed the irrationality of prohibition in a sermon and stated: “Marijuana is seen as an illegal substance. It’s a terrible irony and we feel it, that right now in America there are some folks who are becoming billionaires for selling the same stuff that’s got our children locked up all across America.”

Warnock has been outspoken in his stance regarding the terrible repercussions of the War On Drugs on black communities and believes marijuana reform is non-negotiable at this point. 

“Where is the justice?” he asked “It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana. Somebody’s gotta open up the jails and let our children go.”

He pointed out the discrepancy in the public health system when it came to the color-coded trend.  The War On Drugs was laser-focused on economically challenged, mostly black communities, where heroin and crack addictions were commonplace. Thousands of addicts were arrested and subsequently incarcerated, their only crime being that they have a potentially deadly disease — drug addiction. These individuals were treated like criminals, cruelly denied both rehabilitation and leniency. 

At present, opiate addiction is rampant in suburban, rural, and mostly white regions. This epidemic is labeled a “public health emergency.” Senator Warnock is sadly aware of the skewed mentality. 

“For 35 years we’ve had a war on drugs. Back then we were dealing with heroin and crack. Now we’re dealing with meth and opioids,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that now we have a public health emergency. I’m glad we’ve become so enlightened now that the bodies are suburban, rural, and white.”

Marijuana is still categorized as a Schedule I Controlled Substance and is federally illegal, placed under the same umbrella as heroin and LSD. For decades, prior to, and during the War On Drugs, individuals found in possession of even small amounts of the herb were viewed as hardened criminals and given stiff prison sentences. 

Not surprisingly, Georgia’s stringent laws saw a disproportionate number of black citizens regularly subjected to highly punitive measures for possession of cannabis. At present, prisons in Georgia and across the U.S. are overflowing with prisoners incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. Senator Warnock hopes to bring awareness to this ongoing travesty and recently made this revelatory statement:

“In 1980, there were about 300,000 or so Americans in prison. Today there are 2.3 million Americans in prison. Most of them are there for non-violent, drug-related offenses in America’s so-called war on drugs. We warehouse in America 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Nobody else comes close. Not even China with a billion people. We’ve got them beat. We warehouse 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in the so-called war on drugs.”

The war rages on in Georgia, and as recently as 2018, marijuana possession arrests accounted for 52 percent of all drug convictions. Not surprisingly, the state had the 5th highest possession arrest rate in the U.S. Moreover, the arrest rates increased 18.5 percent between 2010 and 2018. 

Sadly, statistics indicate that a black citizen in Georgia is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a caucasian. 

Opposing forces still say NO!

As progressive politicians in Georgia slowly attempt to reform the state’s harsh laws around marijuana, others with a conservative bent are extremely vocal in their opposition to any form of marijuana legalization legislation. 

Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) became a member of Congress in early 2020, after being appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy. (She recently lost her seat to Warnock.) Loeffler is not confident that loosening the reins of marijuana prohibition is the best move. 

Loeffler says she understands, “some of the arguments in favor of ending the federal prohibition of marijuana and am aware that there are potential medical applications.” However, she is “concerned about the negative effects that legalizing marijuana would have on communities, families, and our nation’s youth.” 

She further stated: “Any efforts by Congress to legalize this substance must be taken seriously and with the common goal in mind to prevent Americans from becoming dependent on drugs,” according to NORML.

She specifically refers to the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory, expressly cautioning against marijuana consumption by adolescents and pregnant women.

Loeffler reiterated her opinion in an American Family Association survey and stated that she “strongly disagrees” with the legalization of marijuana.

The high co$t of cannabi$ law$

Aside from the draconian racial profiling and disproportionate marijuana-related convictions for black citizens in the state, the economy continues to suffer under Georgia marijuana laws.

The stringent marijuana laws in states with ongoing prohibition are costing taxpayers several billion dollars annually. In fact, as far back as 2013, the ACLU reported that a whopping 3.6 billion dollars were allocated exclusively for marijuana-related law enforcement. Reforms in marijuana laws could result in these funds being re-appropriated and funneled into communities historically targeted and harmed by the War On Drugs.”

Full marijuana legalization in Georgia and other prohibition states could take $10 billion away from the cartels and dealers by allowing medical patients access to the herb, now widely accepted for its many medicinal properties. This reform could simultaneously bring relief to thousands of individuals and disempower dangerous criminals.

Legal marijuana programs could also significantly boost the state’s economy and create thousands of jobs across numerous sectors throughout Georgia. 

Based on economic data gathered in legal states, experts project that sales tax on cannabis alone could generate nearly 500 million dollars for Georgia. This income could be strategically utilized in the much-needed bolstering of infrastructure improvement, education, and healthcare.

National statistics and vast amounts of research are becoming harder to ignore. The state of Georgia is severely lagging behind the medical marijuana trend to its own detriment. The state will benefit in a multitude of ways if marijuana legalization ever receives a green light. 

Prolonged prohibition will only ensure unnecessary suffering of its citizens by not allowing access to medical cannabis, in addition to enabling disproportionate racial discrimination. Delaying legalization also places vast amounts of revenue into the pockets of cartels, and not into depleted state coffers.

Hopefully, over the next year, the newly elected progressive officials will have the opportunity to enact some positive change in Georgia’s medical marijuana initiative.

The Deep South has been historically deeply conservative on this issue. However, that’s changing little by little. To Georgia’s south, Florida now has a full-blown medical marijuana program with a good chance voters will legalize recreational use in 2022. A little further to the west, Louisiana offers medical marijuana and Mississippi recently legalized. Further north, Virginia lawmakers recently legalized recreational marijuana. And Texas has been slowly inching along and upgrading what started as a highly restrictive CBD oil law. 

With a little compassion, commonsense, and cultivation, the South could rise again.

Addendum: After turning blue in the 2020 election (the state voted in a Dem. president and two Dem. senators) Georgia conservatives recently passed voting restriction laws that many see as a blatant attempt to retain power. The laws are being widely criticized as being distinctly racist and specifically harmful to communities of color. To say there’s a lot at stake here would be an understatement. This move will either assure the state regains its redness and retains its harsh marijuana laws, or it might only serve to raise the level of outrage among minority voters in the state. Hopefully, the power grab will serve to mobilize progressive voters, to move the state toward ending its costly prohibition of marijuana, and to “open up the jails and let our children go.” 

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