Representatives of Georgia’s nascent medical marijuana industry are expressing frustration with the state’s process for issuing licenses to grow and process cannabis into a therapeutic oil used by registered patients for conditions including seizures and intractable pain.
Georgia legalized low-THC oil and products for people with certain conditions in 2015, but the state didn’t create a legal framework for production until last year. The Georgia Department of Public Health said there were 14,511 people on the Low THC Oil Registry in February 2020, according to Georgia Health News.
Since then, nearly 70 companies have applied for six licenses with the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. The commission said in its annual report in January that licenses would be issued by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
The commission’s executive director, Andrew Turnage, told Fresh Take Georgia last month that the commission was on track to announce “next steps” by the end of May. He has not responded to subsequent questions about the commission’s timeline, funding or staffing.
Zane Bader, co-founder of the Georgia Cannabis Trade Association, said applicants have voiced concerns about the process, and whether the agency has the staffing or ability to answer questions about complexities of the application requirements. Hundreds of questions have been submitted by businesses and published in a document on the commission’s website, many of them answered with the phrase: “The Applicant should determine its approach without an expectation for Commission guidance on business processes.”
“As a trade association, one of the things we’re trying to do is make sure that the commission has the resources to adequately do their job, and all the businesses have an environment where they can actually thrive and excel,” Bader said. “I think that there are going to have to be changes to the way the program is set up to make that happen.”
According to the commission’s annual report, Turnage is the only paid staff member. The seven commissioners, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker, are volunteers and do not have direct experience in the medical marijuana industry.
The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget originally recommended the commission receive a startup budget of $1.2 million. Instead, the state allocated $225,000 for the fiscal year 2020. The commission reported that this level of funding was not enough to cover its basic expenses. For the fiscal year 2021, the commission requested $531,000 to fund basic operating expenses and to add a staff attorney. It received $352,137.
The commission budget is under the secretary of state’s office. Fresh Take Georgia reached out to the commission, the secretary of state, the governor’s office, and the office of State Rep. Micah Gravely, R-Douglasville, a sponsor of Georgia’s Hope Act, for comment on why the commission’s funding was so far below recommended levels, and did not receive a response.
This year, the commission will collect an estimated $1.5 million in application and license fees, but it is not allowed to keep the money. According to the statute, fees are remitted to the treasury upon receipt.
Former State Rep. Allen Peake was a leading supporter of legalizing low THC oil when he was in the Legislature. He declined to run for reelection in 2018. He has continued to work with what he characterized as an “underground network” to provide the medicine from out of state to Georgia families. Importing the oil is illegal.
Peake is part of a company that has applied for one of the licenses the commission will award. He said he was told the commission would issue licenses by June 1.
“We’re two years from passing a bill that said you could grow, process and distribute medical cannabis oil in our state,” he said. “But we don’t have the licenses issued to folks to allow them to do that yet.”
Peake said he will remain involved in the medical cannabis cause whether or not he wins a license to produce it.
“We’re seeing the change in the quality of life of Georgia citizens through this distribution of medical cannabis oil,” he said. “So I don’t foresee us stopping anytime soon.”