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Updated: June 24, 12:55 p.m.

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, responded to questions in an email to Fresh Take Georgia emphasizing the schedule of events laid out in the state’s request for proposals is “projected” and subject to change. He said an additional 30 days has been added to each of the 2021 deadlines “in order to comply with the legal requirements for pre-award protest procedures.”

“The Commission is currently in the process of evaluating applications, and will announce the results at the conclusion of the evaluation process,” Turnage wrote. 

Zane Bader, co-founder of the Georgia Cannabis Trade Association, said applicants have voiced concerns about whether the agency has the staffing or ability to process applications in a timely manner or answer questions about complexities of the 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 unpaid 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, a Republican from Douglasville and sponsor of Georgia’s Hope Act, for comment on why the commission’s funding was so far below recommended levels but did not receive a response.

This year, the commission will collect an estimated $1.5 million in application and license fees. All fees are remitted to the treasury per state statute

Former Republican 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 and 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 six licenses the commission will award. 

“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.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Georgia, a news service of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. The reporter can be reached at aceballos@freshtakegeorgia.org.


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