Families in the gallery supporting the House Bill 1 medical marijuana measure get emotional after the bill passed Feb. 25, 2015. (Bob Andres, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Georgia family now living in Colorado watches MMJ debate in home state

ATLANTA — Sebastien and Annett Cotte don’t plan to come home to Atlanta from Denver until after their 4-year-old son Jagger dies — or the Georgia Legislature passes a bill making medical marijuana legal.

At 15 months, doctors told the Cottes their son wouldn’t make it to 3, then that he’d never see 4. But he did, and a few months ago they moved to Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, and began to treat his seizures with cannabis oil, his dad said Monday. “He has fewer seizures, but we can’t come home if we don’t have a bill.”

It is unlikely that Georgia legislators won’t pass some kind of bill; the question is what it will allow. The General Assembly has two radically different bills in front of it; only one of them would make cannabis oil available soon.

UPDATE (8:45 p.m. March 13, 2015): Georgia Senate’s MMJ bill for 5-year epilepsy study now faces compromise

Rep. Allen Peake’s House Bill 1, which overwhelmingly passed that chamber, is pitted against Senate Bill 185. The Macon Republican’s bill would legalize cannabis oil for patients with seizure disorders and eight other diagnoses, including Jagger’s, a rare and deadly form of Mitochondrial disease.

A bill by Rep. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, would restrict access to cannabis oil only to participants in a limited five-year clinical trial involving people under 21 with epilepsy. It has been approved by a Senate committee. The full chamber could consider it as soon as Wednesday.

But Tippins, from Marietta, said Monday he sees little chance for compromise.

Yet Peake is upbeat.

“I’m very encouraged by what got passed” in the Senate, Peake said. “It supports the governor’s executive order that set up an ongoing clinical trial.”

The Senate bill grants immunity for youths in the study, being conducted by Georgia Regents University, who’ll use a weaker type of cannabis oil.

“The immunity language acknowledges there is a need,” Peake said. “If the Senate bill passes and it comes to the House side, we would try to add my bill’s diagnoses and have nine conditions. So it was a huge step, moving toward finding a solution.”

The other conditions are cancer, Crohn’s disease, Fibromyalgia, Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell anemia. A law including all nine, Peake said, could help up to 500,000 Georgians.

Peake has a lot of support, especially among victims, who filled the Capitol last week. He and Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, met with the families.

Mom: “More parents will go on the black market to find this medicine”

Though the gap between the two bills seems wide, long-time University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bulloch said a law is still possible.

“I wouldn’t want to bet the farm,” he said. “But things come out of conference committee the last night with very little scrutiny. Last year medical marijuana fell apart over a last minute dispute over a different issue, autism.”

The Cottes are one of at least 17 Georgia “refugee” families in Colorado for cannabis oil. Others, such as Katie Crosby, 26, of Macon, are contemplating such a move. She suffers from debilitating Fibromyalgia and said treatment she received in Colorado “was like a miracle,” easing her chronic pain. She said leaving Colorado was “the hardest day of my life, but I felt an obligation to help people in Georgia.”

HB 1 would make it legal to possess up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil with no more than 5 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient.

Tippins’ measure would permit those in the study to take a substance with only 0.3 percent THC. Peake said that’s not strong enough to be effective and would “be a complete deal breaker.”

He says 23 states and Washington, D.C., have medical marijuana laws with no limit levels on THC, the psychoactive ingredient. He says 12 have medical marijuana laws only for epilepsy, and limits on THC.