ATLANTA — More than 100 new patients have received permission to use a form of medical marijuana in Georgia this month, bringing the statewide total of people using the product to more than 1800 less than three years after the state began the program.
They still don’t have easy access to the drug, which can’t legally be produced in Georgia or brought across state lines under federal law. Instead, patients and families have to find a manufacturer willing to ship products or travel to another state where the oil is made and risk being caught breaking the law as they return home.
Even more people have registered as “caregivers,” a separate category in state records that includes parents or others caring for children or others who can’t manage their own medication and may not have a state-issued card to possess the oil. Since May 9 when the latest expansion law took effect, 185 people registered as caregivers bringing the statewide total to 2,248.
People on the registry have to show a doctor’s approval and receive a card as proof they’re allowed to possess the oil containing a low amount of THC, the chemical responsible for the marijuana high, to treat eligible conditions.
After weeks of debate this year, Georgia lawmakers added six diseases to that list: Tourette’s syndrome, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, nerve damage called peripheral neuropathy and a painful skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa.
Since the law took effect May 9, new patients listed the condition peripheral neuropathy most often. The law required that the disease, nerve damage that can cause pain, numbness and tingling, must be considered “severe or end stage” to qualify for the registry.
According to figures from the Department of Public Health, 23 people listed nerve damage, followed by 21 with seizure disorders, 19 with cancer, 18 with multiple sclerosis and 13 with autism.
Other new conditions include 3 people diagnosed with Tourette’s, and 3 with epidermolysis bullosa. So far, no patients have listed AIDS or Alzheimer’s disease.
Rep. Allen Peake, a Republican who authored Georgia’s legislation, said the steady number of sign-ups is more reason for the state to allow production of medical marijuana products. Peake revealed recently that he plays a key role in helping some Georgians get cannabis oil.
Each month he receives different types of cannabis oil at his Macon office and provides it to people around the state.
Federal law bars transporting marijuana, a Schedule I narcotic, across the state lines. Peake says he doesn’t bring the oil in himself and doesn’t ask how it gets to his door. The process puts him in a legal gray area but he said appreciation from patients or their family members makes it worthwhile.
“It’s what continues to push us to take the risk because it’s having such an incredible impact on folks’ lives,” he said.
Jennifer Conforti registered two days after Georgia’s governor signed the expansion into law on May 9. She began giving her daughter, who is autistic, cannabis oil more than two years ago when nothing else addressed the girl’s “rages,” including screams and Abby biting her own arms.
Abby, now 6, doesn’t try to hurt herself anymore and has begun eating whole foods rather than pureed items. She’s learning to eat with a spoon and knows to pull her dad’s hands to her stomach when she wants to be tickled.
Conforti lightly said that she got used to breaking the law to get the oil, but she describes receiving the registry card as a “bittersweet” moment.
“The bitter part is the fact that we are not anywhere close to where we need to be, which is cultivation and distribution,” she said. “Until we have it readily available for people here, what’s the point?”
She and other advocates plan to keep pushing for that in Georgia.
Brian Underwood’s 3-year-old son, Reid, is the reason epidermolysis bullosa is eligible in Georgia. Reid lacked a protein in his skin at birth, leaving him susceptible to painful tears and blisters all over his body that heal slowly. He wears white bandages wrapped around his arms and legs to prevent damage, but even certain types of food can tear the skin of his mouth.
Getting a registry card doesn’t make it any easier to get the two varieties of oil and a skin cream they began using several years ago with approval from Reid’s doctor.
“It’s just ludicrous that it’s illegal to get,” Brian Underwood said. “We’re glad the card gives us protection here. But that’s not the hard part.”