Pharmacies in the state of Georgia were preparing to sell medical cannabis, in compliance with state laws and regulations. But federal authorities soon intervened to shut down the whole plan. An expert told Filter this was inevitable, and that Georgia lawmakers are to blame for years of inaction. It’s a reminder, too, that while marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, states can only go so far in changing their own drug laws.
Georgia has not fully legalized cannabis. But in 2015, the legislature passed a very limited bill allowing for access to some cannabis products for people with severe illnesses like cancer or sickle cell disease. House Bill 1, signed by former Governor Nathan Deal (R), allowed for qualifying patients to have low-THC cannabis oil. However, it did not license any cannabis producers or dispensaries, and effectively just decriminalized possession in the case of a patient with a qualifying condition and doctor’s recommendation.
In the years that followed, lawmakers revisited the issue to add more qualifying conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intractable pain. Then in 2019, under Gov. Brian Kemp (R) , the laws were changed further to finally authorize and license dispensaries to sell medical cannabis products. This was limited to products like capsules, tinctures or patches—no flower products for smoking or vaping are permitted, or even edibles.
In April, Georgia opened its first-ever medical marijuana dispensaries in Macon and Marietta, operated by Trulieve and licensed by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. To date, there are only eight dispensaries in the entire state, including five in the Atlanta metro area and one each in Augusta and Savannah.
This means that most qualifying patients in Georgia still don’t have ready access to medical cannabis. A person living in Bainbridge, in rural southern Georgia, for example, would have to drive three hours to get to the nearest dispensary.
Georgia is not a state you would expect to pursue a radical drug policy reform, but the disparity in medical cannabis access prompted a dramatic move. In October, the Cannabis Commission announced that it would allow pharmacies to dispense medical cannabis.
It didn’t take long for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to intervene.
This came after Gov. Kemp approved a new set of rules—and would have been a first in the nation. Even Colorado, say, which has had fully legal cannabis for nearly a decade, restricts sales to licensed dispensaries.
Georgia’s pharmacy board began accepting applications from stores, with nearly 120 showing interest in stocking cannabis products, for which they would first need to pass an inspection. Botanical Sciences, a state-licensed medical cannabis producer, estimated to PBS that 90 percent of Georgia residents would now be within a 30-minute drive of a legal cannabis seller.
But it didn’t take long for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to intervene. On November 27, it sent a letter to pharmacies in Georgia, warning them not to move forward. It read, in part:
“All DEA registrants, including DEA-registered pharmacies, are required to abide by all relevant federal laws and regulations. A DEA-registered pharmacy may only dispense controlled substances in Schedules II-V of the Controlled Substances Act. Neither marijuana nor THC can lawfully be possessed, handled or dispensed by any DEA-registered pharmacy.”
Cannabis, of course, remains a Schedule I substance under federal law—considered, despite all the evidence, to have “no currently accepted medical use.”
On December 17, the Associated Press reported that Georgia’s Cannabis Commission conceded it can’t override federal law, spelling the end of the pharmacies experiment before it began.
“The reality is we need to be pointing fingers at Georgia lawmakers and regulators.”
Paul Armentano, deputy political director at NORML and a cannabis legalization advocate, told Filter he is very sorry for the many patients unable to get their medicine. But he reserved scathing criticism not just for the DEA, but for Georgia’s lawmakers. They should have known better, he said, and this whole situation was both predictable and avoidable.
“It’s easy to point fingers at the DEA, but the reality is we need to be pointing fingers at Georgia lawmakers and regulators,” he said. “There’s a reason no other state has ever tried to dispense cannabis products this way. It is clearly in violation of federal law that governs licensed pharmacies. It puts their license at risk. The idea that Georgia lawmakers didn’t seem to understand this basic truism when it comes to cannabis, I think, is more surprising.”
Armentano pointed out that this wouldn’t be happening if the state’s elected officials had taken action, years ago, to license more dispensaries statewide, instead of procrastinating and then seeking last-minute solutions.
Georgia’s lawmakers, he said, “legalized these cannabis products in 2015, eight years ago, and the only reason over the past few months they were scrambling to try and have independent pharmacies put their businesses at risk by stocking and dispensing these products, is because in eight years state lawmakers and regulators haven’t been able to get their act together and license an adequate number of dispensaries.”
“The patients in Georgia have been the ones suffering for all this time.”
Meanwhile, a Georgia Court of Appeals recently ruled on a lawsuit brought by a group of businesses hoping to be licensed to produce medical cannabis products. The companies alleged that the Cannabis Commission’s process was unfair and secretive, and put them at a disadvantage with no way to contest regulators’ decisions.
The judge ruled against them, allowing the state to complete its licensing process for a total of just six chosen companies to cultivate, manufacture and process cannabis oil.
Armentano noted that Georgia is going through similar problems to neighboring Alabama, which has also seen multiple lawsuits over its medical marijuana licensing process. The predictable result of these restrictive state cannabis laws, he said, which leave businesses fighting over a tiny handful of licenses, is to delay access for patients in need.
“The patients in Georgia have been the ones suffering for all this time,” he said. “Politicians and regulators have really let them down, and failed to deliver on promises they have made now almost a decade ago.”
Photograph by James Moore200 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0