Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signs a medical marijuana bill into law as the bill's sponsor, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, left, watches along with Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, right, during a ceremony at the Statehouse on Thursday, April 16, 2015, in Atlanta. (David Goldman, The Associated Press)

Georgia medical marijuana: Gov. Deal signs cannabis oil bill into law

ATLANTA — To the squeals of sick children and thunderous applause from their parents, an emotional Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation Thursday that immediately legalizes the use of medical marijuana in Georgia to treat eight serious medical conditions.

House Bill 1, sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, makes it legal for people to possess up to 20 ounces of fluid cannabis oil, which he said could ease the pain and suffering of up to 500,000 people who qualify. The cannabis oil can contain no more than 5 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive agent.

With the stroke of a pen, Georgia became the 36th state, plus Washington, D.C., to legalize marijuana extracts to treat illnesses. That includes 12 states that only use it to treat epilepsy, Peake said.

Georgia’s law makes cannabis oil legal to treat people with epilepsy and other seizure disorders, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell anemia.

“For the families enduring separation and patients suffering pain, the wait is finally over,” said Deal, his voice cracking. “Now, Georgia children and their families may return home, while continuing to receive much-needed care. Patients such as Haleigh Cox, for whom this bill is named, and others suffering from debilitating conditions can now receive the treatment they need, in the place where they belong — Georgia.”

He hugged Haleigh, 5, who has intractable epilepsy, and her mother, Janea Cox, who have been living in Colorado for months while husband Brian, a Johns Creek firefighter, stayed in Georgia.

Peake said he was grateful to Deal and his colleagues in the statehouse “for making this historic and monumental day happen.”

Deal said he would work to make sure the state agencies involved handle the job properly and will seek to improve the law in next year’s General Assembly.

But obstacles remain. Possession of marijuana is illegal under federal law, though the U.S. Justice Department has said it will not stand in the way of states that want to legalize marijuana, as long as effective controls are in place. Joseph Moses, a special agent in Atlanta for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, said the DEA will “hold to those guidelines” but added that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Asked if people who need cannabis oil will run the risk of arrest in states between Georgia and Colorado or from federal Transportation Security Administration agents at airports, he said he couldn’t “get into the hypotheticals.”

That’s what scares people like Mike Hopkins, 53, of Covington, who came home from Colorado for the bill signing ceremony. He said he’s not willing to take a chance that his daughter, Michala, might not be able to be treated with cannabis oil. Two of his children have died.

He said the 17-year-old has been “helped tremendously” by the extract but “we’re going to stay in Colorado for a while. We just can’t take the chance.”

Deal said Georgia’s program will be tightly regulated and patients will have to be granted documentation from physicians before receiving cards from the state.

Peake and other advocates contend the state should legalize and regulate the in-state cultivation of cannabis oil to remove any risk.

Still, Deal said, tearing up, “this certainly touched my heart, and I’m pleased today we’re going to make a difference.”