Although Georgia has legalized medical marijuana, one family still risks everything to acquire the medicine their daughter needs.
Haleigh Cox suffers from a seizure disorder that doctors said would cause a short, painful life. She was unresponsive, unable to say “hello” or sit up on her own as a result of her condition. Cox’s mother Janea has noticed a significant improvement in Haleigh’s condition. “She knows who we are now,” explained Janea. “She knows her mama and dada are there and that we don’t leave her.” Haleigh is now able to attend school and therapy sessions, and is starting to paint and support her own body.
“The progress that she’s made with this medicine has been amazing,”
said Julie Sullens, Haleigh’s physical therapist. “She knows you’re there. She talks. She communicates. She told me ‘Bye!'”
Several states, including Georgia, have legalized medical marijuana, but have no framework for licensing growers and distributors. This makes the possession of marijuana legal but no legal way to procure it within the state. In 2015, state legislation titled Haleigh’s Hope Act, named after Haleigh herself, was meant to solve this issue, but patients are still waiting for their medicine. “To have a medicine that’s working for her but it’s still illegal to actually get it, it’s really frustrating,” said Janea.
In the meantime, Janea travels to Colorado to procure the cannabis oil Haleigh needs.
“Of course, we’re breaking federal law by getting it on an airplane and flying it back with us,”
“You kind of get a ball at the pit of your stomach when you start going through security, and you just hope that if they find it, that they kind of understand why you’re doing it.”
Colorado and Georgia have some form of legalized marijuana, but bringing it across state lines can still lead to federal penalties, including those for drug trafficking. Although TSA policy is to not actively search for drugs, they will refer travelers in possession of illegal drugs to local law enforcement. So far, Janea has only experienced slight panic.
“I forgot I had some in Haleigh’s diaper bag, and as I was watching the guy searching her diaper bag, and I remembered, and I was like ‘Oh no!’ and this is when it was fairly new, and I faked a seizure for Haleigh. I just started flipping out, hoping they would forget to look in that pocket,” said Janea.
Photo credit: Hope for Haleigh
Haleigh Cox and her mother Janea moved from Forsyth, Georgia, to Colorado in order to obtain medical marijuana. Haleigh suffers from a disorder that causes her to have more than 200 seizures a day. When she uses cannabis, however, she only experiences about three seizures a day.
Now, thanks to the implementation of HB 1, also called the Haleigh’s Hope Act, Haleigh is back home in Georgia.
The state launched its Low THC Oil Registry on June 16. Parents of children like Haleigh are what motivated Gov. Nathan Deal to push the legislation. He stated,
“On a personal level, trying to put ourselves in their place, it would be difficult for anybody to have to watch their child have multiple seizures every day.”
There are strict requirements for those wishing to get onto the registry. Only eight qualifying conditions are listed, including seizure disorders, sickle cell anemia, cancer, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease. Patients with these conditions must be either younger than 1 or have lived in Georgia at least one year.
Physicians must approve patients before sending their information to the registry. Patients may then be issued a card. The cards, which are $25 each, should be ready within 15 business days and must be picked up from a public health office.
Patients with the cards are legally allowed to have 20 fluid ounces of low THC oil. Their physicians must report back to the state every three months.
Unfortunately, patients may still encounter issues when accessing medical marijuana because state laws do not yet address the cultivation or distribution of the substance. Companies that ship medical marijuana could be breaking a federal law.
“My message to our congressmen and senators is change the damn law. It’s that simple; lives are at stake here,”
said state Rep. Allen Peake.
People who need less than 0.3 percent of THC may be able to get plants – considered hemp – shipped into Georgia. People who require higher amounts of THC will probably find themselves traveling out of the state to get the cannabis oil.
On Thursday, April 16, Georgia governor Nathan Deal made the highly regulated and limited use of cannabis oil legal in his state by signing the Haleigh’s Hope Act.
Named after Haleigh Cox, a five-year-old Georgia resident with a severe form of epilepsy, the law is surprising progress in an area of southern America that has, thus far, failed to follow the lead of medical cannabis pioneers like California, Oregon, and Colorado.
The oil, which is extracted from a strain of marijuana that’s low in THC, doesn’t give users the psychoactive effect and euphoric high of street varieties, making it perfect for both children and adults with jobs and careers. Instead of THC, this powerful extract is rich in the cannabinoid CBD, known for its unique pain reduction and nerve conditioning properties.
Before being allowed to possess and consume the oil, patients must first obtain a prescription from a doctor. Ironically, because cultivation of cannabis, even for medical purposes, remains illegal in Georgia, families are forced to acquire the organic oil from states where it is permitted, like Colorado or California.
Despite these barriers to safe, local access, patients with the following conditions will be permitted to possess up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil:
- 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.
Notably lacking from the list is arthritis, depression, PTSD, cancer, chronic pain, glaucoma, and migraines, among many other conditions.
Ironically, Haleigh Cox and her family had already moved out of Georgia, to Colorado, at the time of the bill’s passage. The Georgia natives made the move simply to give Kindergarten-age Haleigh ready access to the only medicine that decreases her more than 200 seizures per day.
After doctors told Haleigh’s mother, Janea, that her daughter might have only three months to live — and the child would regularly stop breathing (a side effect of her anti-seizure medication) — Ms. Cox decided to make the move to Colorado Springs. Now that possession and use of the seizure-reducing oil are legal in the Peach State, the family plans to move back.
Weak in Comparison
While certainly progress, other states, like California and Oregon, have much more liberal and less restrictive medical marijuana laws in place. Patients in these states are allowed to grow, smoke, and consume a variety of forms of raw cannabis flowers (buds), hash, kief, oil, tinctures, and edibles.
Georgia’s law in also unusually strict in terms of requiring advanced forms of certain diseases. For example, the law allows the administration of cannabis oil only for “severe or end stage” levels of Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
Many medical marijuana advocates will be frustrated that serious conditions, like early-stage Parkinson’s, aren’t covered by the law — especially considering that some research has pointed to the power of cannabis medicine to stop the progression of diseases like Altzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.
Better Than Before
However, the relief delivered to patients of all ages by this law is unquestionable. While it doesn’t provide a convenient means of production or access to the oil, the legislation gives patients like Haleigh Cox, who have tried other, more conventional pharmaceutical drugs and therapies, a new lease on life (and, in some cases, literally life itself).
There’s plenty of room for improvement in this law — such as the inclusion of several conditions that are standard in many other states — but Georgia’s newfound leniency toward medical cannabis is no doubt a positive sign in a state not known for its progressive social policies.