As a beacon of hope for patients in Georgia, an executive director has finally been appointed by the Access to Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee the next stages of development for the state’s medical marijuana program.
Andrew Turnage, who has experience as executive director for both the Georgia State Board of Cosmetology and Barbers and the Georgia Board of Nursing, was selected over four other applicants.
“We have one goal, and that’s to get oil for families in need,” Turnage said to Valdosta Today. “Think about families that have struggled to have their basic needs met during this pandemic. We have families in Georgia that have struggled for years to get this basic need, low-THC oil, and our task will be to ensure that they receive it.”
Turnage came highly recommended for the position by The Goodwin Group, an executive recruiting firm that reportedly consulted with cannabis industry experts before making the recommendation.
“Mr. Turnage not only has the experience The Goodwin Group recommended, but specifically in the area of state licensing, which is essential to getting us up and running and producing low-THC oil,” said the commission’s chairman and principal surgeon at the Atlanta Neurological & Spine Institute, Dr. Christopher Edwards.
Turnage will be responsible for establishing the selection process for licensing cultivation and distribution businesses as well as lab-testing and system regulations. At least six cultivation licenses are expected to be awarded, but the timeline for when the legal distribution system is expected to be in place has not been released.
According to the program’s website, conditions that qualify a person to be able to apply for the Georgia Medical Marijuana Program include:
Cancer, when such diagnosis is end stage or the treatment produces related wasting illness or recalcitrant nausea and vomiting
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
Seizure disorders related to diagnosis of epilepsy or trauma related head injuries
Multiple sclerosis, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
Parkinson’s disease, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
Sickle cell disease, when such diagnosis is severe or end stage
Tourette’s syndrome, when such syndrome is diagnosed as severe
Autism spectrum disorder, when (a) patient is 18 years of age or more, or (b) patient is less than 18 years of age and diagnosed with severe autism
Alzheimer’s disease, when such disease is severe or end stage
AIDS when such syndrome is severe or end stage
Peripheral neuropathy, when symptoms are severe or end stage
Patient is in hospice program, either as inpatient or outpatient
Post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from direct exposure to or witnessing of a trauma for a patient who is at least 18 years of age
A Brief History
It all began in 2015 when Georgia lawmakers approved legislation to allow registered medical marijuana patients in the state to possess and use up to 20 fluid ounces of low-THC cannabis oil. In order to qualify as “low-THC” the oil must contain no more than 5 percent of the psychoactive cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Last year, the state appointed members to the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, and an executive director was just elected by that board in May of 2020.
In five years of program development, patients still have no way to legally purchase the oil within state lines. Registered patients and caregivers are forced to obtain the medicine on the black market, where it is neither regulated nor lab-tested, or buy it in another state, breaking federal laws to drive it across state lines.
Georgia legislators have been aware all along that a system for distribution needed to be established. In 2017, a top Georgia lawmaker even made headlines when he admitted to smuggling medical marijuana into the state for patients who were suffering.
The chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant that translate into the effects felt, and deliver medicinal value to the consumer, are called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids, like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), work synergistically in a process known as the entourage effect. Simply put, this means that these cannabinoids are more effective when they are able to work as a team than when they are used separately. This is why many proponents insist that whole plant medicine or full spectrum cannabis oils are more effective treatment options than CBD oil that contains 5 percent or less THC. For many patients, low-THC oil and CBD isolates simply are not enough to treat debilitating symptoms.
Now that Georgia is one step closer to providing patients with safe, reliable access to medical cannabis oil, many hope the next step will be expanding the law to include different forms, more methods of delivery, and higher potency options.
In a surprisingly progressive move, the Atlanta Police Department announced that potential recruits will no longer be rejected for admitting that they have used cannabis in the past. In fact, the question regarding cannabis consumption has been completely removed from the department’s applicant pre-screening questionnaire.
Until recently, applicants were asked if they had consumed cannabis at any time in the last two years. According to the old policy, if the applicant answered ‘yes’ to that question, he or she was automatically rejected.
While seemingly groundbreaking for a department in a state where cannabis has not yet been legalized, the city’s police chief made clear this shift in policy does not give current Atlanta police officers the green light to start smoking marijuana. An applicant’s previous use of cannabis may no longer come into question, but active officers still may not consume the plant in any form.
“The use of, and attitude toward, both medical and recreational marijuana in the United States is rapidly evolving,” said Carlos Campos, the Atlanta Police Department’s director of public affairs.
“We’re not concerned so much that you used marijuana in the past, but you cannot work here as a police officer and use it,” continued Campos. “You cannot smoke marijuana if you’re an Atlanta police officer. Period. End of story.”
High Quality Officers Needed
The motivation behind the shift in policy comes from needing to attract more high-quality recruits, according to the announcement made by Chief Erika Shields. The Atlanta Police Department has seen a decline in applicants who are able to make it beyond the drug use screening in recent years. Before the policy reform, up to 60 percent of applicants had been rejected for answering ‘yes’ to the cannabis use question.
“Given the reality of this landscape, the Atlanta Police Department is increasingly encountering young applicants who are admitting to marijuana use, a question we have traditionally used to screen potential officers,” said Campos. “The result is that we are eliminating candidates who are otherwise qualified to become police officers.”
“We have to be practical about this, so that’s the change that we made,” said chief Shields after announcing the policy change. “Hopefully we’ll see it offset some of the numbers.”
Removing the cannabis screening from the hiring process isn’t the only thing the department is doing in an effort to attract more qualified applicants. They’re also offering more money. The starting salary for rookie officers in Atlanta was recently raised, and newly sworn in Atlanta police officers can expect to make $48,500.
The department has been sharing recruitment ads on its Facebook page which read, “JOIN THE ELITE APD: Looking for a fresh start in a law enforcement career? The Atlanta Police Department is hiring for police officers and we have competitive new salaries with starting officer pay beginning at $48,500.”
Higher pay and past drug use forgiveness aside, new recruits and veteran officers alike can expect to be drug tested. According to the Atlanta Police Department, there will be an increase in random drug testing to weed out officers who do not follow the law.
The department is hoping to fill 350 vacancies as soon as possible, and they expect the recent policy changes to make all the difference.
While the state of Georgia may be slow moving when it comes to cannabis policy reform, the capital city of Atlanta continues to be progressive. The possession of up to one ounce of cannabis was decriminalized in Fulton County in October 2017. Instead of facing up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines, the penalty for personal possession is now just a citation with a maximum fine of up to $75.
The parents of 15-year-old David Brill spent almost a week in jail. Their son was taken away for nine weeks. All because they opted to treat David’s epilepsy with marijuana—in violation of Georgia law—when pharmaceuticals failed.
Now that they’ve had their custody restored, the family is considering leaving the state and moving somewhere more friendly to the therapeutic use of cannabis, Matthew and Suzanne Brill told Marijuana Moment in an interview.
But they’re not abandoning their efforts to promote cannabis reform in Georgia, where smokeable marijuana for medical purposes remains illegal.
“We’re not turning backs on the people in need just because there’s a possibility that we’ll leave with our son so that he can be treated now,” Matthew Brill said. “We’re not going to give up the fight.”
“We’re going to push for legalization in the state of Georgia. It has to happen.”
The Brill family’s situation captured national interest after David was put into protective custody in March. His parents were charged with “reckless conduct” over their decision to treat David’s seizures with cannabis, and they were put in jail for six days. They were able to speak with their son only on a limited basis, during phone calls and short visitations.
David told Marijuana Moment that he was “upset” when he was removed from his parents. He’s feeling better now, but emphasized that he’s now required to treat his condition with the same pharmaceuticals that “almost killed me back in December.”
He also said that, while in protective custody, his health problems were ignored when he reported he “wasn’t feeling well,” and that staff members allowed people to “jump me” during his stay. One staff member threatened physical violence against David while he was experiencing a seizure, Suzanne said.
Suzanne also said that her son was separated from his service dog when he was placed in protective custody. The police department placed the dog “in the pound” because authorities claimed “she was not a real seizure dog,” she said.
— Warriors for David: 71 days of childhood (@Warriors4David) June 23, 2018
At a press conference on May 31, Twiggs County Sheriff Darren Mitchum said that the department acted in David’s best interest by removing him from his parents, arguing that “somebody’s gotta stand up for the child’s welfare.”
Just now, Georgia sheriff defends removing teenager from parent’s custody because they let him smoke marijuana — WHICH HELPED HIS SEIZURES:
“Somebody’s gotta stand up for the child’s welfare.”
But earlier this week, a glimmer of hope: a judge granted a protective order that allowed David to return home under conditions agreed upon by both the Brills and Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services. Suzanne said she was confident that the criminal case against them will ultimately be dropped.
It’s a bittersweet situation, though. Starting in February, when David started using cannabis to treat his epilepsy with cannabis, he went 71 days without a seizure. Without the plant, the seizures have returned.
By contrast, Suzanne said that within a week of marijuana treatment, David was able to “talk properly,” he was no longer “stumbling over himself” and “every day he was getting better.”
“Within the first week, there was no more of the behavioral problems. My son went 71 days without a single seizure.”
David said that the cannabis enabled him to be a normal 15-year-old. Asked what he’d tell Georgia lawmakers who don’t believe that marijuana is medicine, he said simply: “It worked for me.”
His mother responded to the question more bluntly.
“My message to Georgia lawmakers is get your heads out of your asses. This is something that not only people can use to keep their anxiety low—because everybody on the face of the planet suffers from anxiety—but this is also something that can help so many kids. Get your heads out of your asses and make it legal.”
Regardless of how the family’s case pans out, one thing is clear. Criminalizing medical marijuana, even in a state as deep red as Georgia, remains unpopular among voters. And David’s case—evoking the interest of a national audience and the ACLU, which filed an amicus brief defending the family—has served as a testament to that sentiment.
As Suzanne told Atlantic Georgia News earlier this week, this case exemplifies “how the war on drugs breaks up families.”
High school student CJ Harris has been responding well to cannabis treatment for his epilepsy. But school rules prohibit taking his medication on campus. The rule has forced additional debate over Georgia’s medical marijuana laws, which have already caused controversy, and CJ is being used an example.
CJ is able to play sports and travel with his high school basketball team, but his epilepsy could surface at any time. “I wake up every morning and I pray, ‘Please don’t let nothing happen today. Please don’t let nothing happen today,’” said CJ. After prescription drugs failed to control CJ’s seizures, he began a cannabis treatment regimen in January.
“He’s going from having two seizures a month or one seizure a month, and now he hasn’t had any? That’s like, wow.”
But taking take a lunchtime dose of cannabis oil means CJ has to leave the school’s campus in order to take his life-saving treatment. “So I’ve got to come pick him up every day, check him out of school, bring him to the house,” said Harris.
A statement by the Houston County Board of Education reiterated school policy. “Per the Safe and Drug Free Schools federal law, the oil may not be brought onto school grounds.” Schools that allow medical marijuana on campus risk losing vital federal funding. Harris also mentioned that the private school his son was previously enrolled in allowed medical marijuana on campus.
When medical marijuana was legalized in Georgia in 2015, the program was limited to low-THC treatments reserved for patients with eight qualifying conditions. The biggest problem was access, since the law only legalized cannabis oil and did not set up any sort of regulatory agency or provide framework for a cannabis industry. Patients and parents of sick children have been forced to travel to other states to obtain cannabis medications, risking federal prosecution for drug trafficking.
Georgia state Rep. Allen Peake (R), who has spearheaded Georgia’s medical marijuana legislation, expects that the clashing of state and federal law will continue. “CJ’s case is not going to be isolated,” he said. “There are kids all over the state who are going to be facing the same issue, particularly now that autism is added to the list of qualifying conditions.” Peake has actually gone under the radar to help obtain the cannabis oil on behalf of registered medical marijuana patients in Georgia. While Peake said he would like schools to change their policies in the best interests of their students, the loss of federal funding can devastate a public school’s budget.
State bill SB 16, which passed earlier this year, expanded the number of qualifying conditions but still neglected to provide an in-state source for medical marijuana. Roughly 1700 patients are enrolled in the state program.
Even if the state manages to develop a thriving medical marijuana program that allows cannabis oil to be manufactured in the state, prohibiting medical marijuana treatment on school campuses still puts children at risk, especially those that could end a child’s life in an instant.
“It’s hard because you don’t know if this is your last breath your child is taking. You just don’t know,” said Harris.
Katelyn Ebner was on her way home from work when she was pulled over by a police officer for allegedly crossing the center line. She had never been pulled over before, and was confident that the incident would be a misunderstanding.
But Officer Tracy Carroll of the Cobb County Police in Georgia seemed intent on arresting Ebner for a DUI.
“You’re showing me indicators that you have smoked marijuana,” Carroll said during the 30-minute traffic stop and 20-minute field sobriety test. Ebner tried to explain that she was tired after her shift as a waitress, and had a documented history of anemia, but had absolutely no alcohol or marijuana in her system. She even offered to take a drug test, but Carroll was determined to make the arrest.
“You’re going to jail, ma’am,” Carroll said. “I don’t have a magical drug test that I can give you right now.”
This comment should be enough to end the traffic stop, since there is no test for determining cannabis intoxication that can be conducted during a traffic stop. But law enforcement hasn’t let science stop them from developing their own methods. The Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) is a questionable certification program that uses typical field sobriety tests to determine intoxication. Since it relies on observation, officers are left to judge for themselves, which creates problems later in court.
As a result of Officer Carroll’s conjecture, Ebner lost her alcohol servers permit needed at her job. Although her blood and urine tests came back negative and led to the charges being dropped, Ebner spent thousands of dollars fighting the bogus charges. Officer Carroll and his DRE certification led to two other DUI arrests in 2016. Charges for both cases were dropped after testing confirmed the drivers were sober. “They’re ruining people’s lives,” Ebner said.
Flaws in the DRE system can have a detrimental effect in court, according to criminal defense attorney William Head. “The case law around the country says if a person has had this additional training, they’re allowed to get up [on the stand] and tell the jury that they have special training and can detect things that even a doctor can’t detect,” he said, adding that Carroll did not follow procedure in Ebner’s arrest. “He went ahead and arrested her anyway on guesswork ― pure guesswork.”
Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice agrees that questionable arrests and time spent in jail shouldn’t be taken lightly, and should be done using procedures based on verifiable facts. “People die, they commit suicide, they lose their jobs ― there are consequences to these things,” said O’Donnell.
According to a spokesperson for the police department, arrest procedures are being reviewed. But arresting people for marijuana intoxication appears to be a priority for Cobb County Police, even with no viable testing method in place. “As a state-certified and nationally accredited law enforcement agency, we are very concerned about [DUI] cases outside of alcohol that appear to be on the increase in our local jurisdictions, state and nationally,” said Sergeant Dana Pierce. “We will strive to continue to protect our community from people who choose to drive under the influence.”