Advocates for Georgia’s dead-in-the-water medical marijuana program hope a new initiative will finally start providing cannabis oil to patients more than three years after the General Assembly legalized the industry.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced last Tuesday that he was appointing Sid Johnson, a former commissioner at the Georgia Department of Administrative Services (DOAS), board chairman of the state commission that oversees the program. In addition, Kemp directed $150,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to expedite the hearing of legal protests filed by companies whose applications for licenses to produce cannabis oil were rejected.

Kemp’s initiative came after the state Senate tabled a House bill aimed at restarting the cannabis oil program on the final night of this year’s legislative session.

“I think this is a start,” said Georgia Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, who carried the measure in the Senate. “He’s heading in the right direction.”

Efforts to legalize the production of cannabis oil in Georgia for patients suffering from a range of diseases go back seven years.

Lawmakers passed a bill in 2015 legalizing possession of low-THC cannabis oil. But the law didn’t provide a legal means of obtaining the drug, forcing adult patients and parents of children with seizure disorders and other maladies to go out of state for the product or buy it illegally in Georgia.

The General Assembly sought to resolve that issue in 2019, passing a bill that legalized growing marijuana in Georgia under close supervision and converting the leafy crop into low-THC cannabis oil. The law put in place a licensing process for companies interested in taking part in the program and created the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee it.

The commission issued a request for proposals a year later and received 69 applications for the six licenses the legislation authorized.

Following a lengthy review, the commission issued tentative licenses to six winning companies last summer. That’s when a program already plagued by fits and starts bogged down completely.

Sixteen of the companies denied licenses filed legal protests alleging the selection process was unfair and arbitrary. Some legislators who followed the scoring of applicants agreed with that assessment.

“It was terrible,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, who has played a leading role in trying to straighten out the program. “Some of the [winning] companies shouldn’t have been eligible.”

Powell introduced legislation in February aimed at heading off the potential for lengthy litigation by the 16 protesting companies by increasing the number of licenses to be awarded from six to 22.

“If you compare Georgia to every other state that has medical cannabis, Georgia should have 22 licenses,” he said. “That circumvents any lawsuit.”

But opening the program to that many licenses wouldn’t fly with leadership in either the House or Senate. After the two chambers passed their own separate bills, a legislative conference committee negotiated a final version calling for the awarding of three additional licenses.

The legislation also provided for a do-over on the original six licenses, with the Department of Administrative Services doing the evaluating rather than the commission. Any ensuing legal protests of the DOAS awards would be heard by the Office of State Administrative Hearings, with appeals to be heard by the Georgia Statewide Business Court.

The House passed the conference committee report on the last night of the session. But when it got over to the Senate, it was tabled by a single vote.

House Speaker David Ralston said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“I thought we had a product in the House that would meet with the approval of the Senate,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “It’s a real tragedy that we’re three years down the road from passing this bill and will still don’t have this oil for these families.”

Kemp is trying to pick up the pieces with his plan to appoint a new board chairman for the commission and put up $150,000 to expedite hearings of legal protests.

“It’s very similar to some of the legislation we had been considering,” Watson said. “It’s his way of saying, ‘Let’s get these hearings done, get the seeds in the ground and the oil to the kids.’ “

In Johnson, Kemp has picked a board chairman with experience in government procurement, the issue at the heart of what’s troubling the medical cannabis program. The original board chairman was a physician without that kind of expertise.

“Mr. Johnson brings a certain skill set,” Kemp spokeswoman Katie Byrd said. “He’s going to be a good asset.”

Chuck Clay, a lawyer representing Pure Peach Therapeutics, one of the companies protesting the earlier licensing process, called the governor’s plan a step forward. But he said Kemp’s plan will only keep the protesting parties out of court if it’s done the right way.

“We want to see all the scores regraded,” Clay said. “That’s the quickest way to get to an outcome. … I’m a wait-and-see guy. We’ll see how that occurs.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams is Capitol Beat bureau chief.

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