Georgia isn’t known for being particularly cannabis-friendly, but one state lawmaker has made it his personal mission to bring medical marijuana to the notoriously conservative state no matter what.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, was a vocal proponent for House Bill 1, known as the Haleigh’s Hope Act, which faced numerous objections and revisions before becoming law last April. The measure legalized low-THC cannabis oil for epilepsy patients, allowing possession and use. But in order to gain support from opponents, the bill was amended to leave out manufacturing or distribution.
This legislative session, Peake is back with a vengeance. House Bill 722 would set up a dispensary system modeled after Minnesota’s and expand qualifying conditions beyond epilepsy to include post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, intractable pain, HIV/AIDS, autism, and terminal illnesses.
Leafly spoke with Peake, known to some as the godfather of the medical marijuana movement in Georgia, about what inspired him to take action and what’s next for medical cannabis in the Empire State of the South.
Leafly: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during the fight for medical marijuana in Georgia?
Rep. Allen Peake: I’m a conservative Republican in a very conservative state, and a guy that has never done any drugs whatsoever. Never. Never smoked marijuana, wouldn’t know what a plant even looked like two years ago. [laughs] I’ve got plenty of other vices — some of them have been documented — but drugs was never one of them, so for me to jump into this thing two years ago, I was just completely out of my element.
For me, it was the story of this four-year-old little girl named Haleigh Cox. Looks just like my granddaughter. And when I saw her and heard her story and her family’s story, I had to ask the question that any of us would have to ask: “What would I do if this was my child?” And that’s what spurred me into action. The more I got to know the family, the more I got to know their story, the more I got to realize that this is beyond politics, that this is worth any political risk, any potential cost it might be to me to try to find a solution for not only this little girl and her family, but, as I come to find out, there are hundreds of other parents with children in the exact same situation.
That’s what has motivated me over the last two years. And I was able to learn more about the medical cannabis industry and the impact it can have on lots of different diagnoses.
The biggest challenge — I mean, there’s a multitude. For one, it was having to overcome my own bias and perceptions, but then it became, OK, I’ve got to convince my colleagues, the majority of the Legislature and the Governor, to think like me — that this is a route we need to go down. It’s been a huge challenge, a huge learning curve, a huge education for all of my colleagues. The great news is that last year, they got it. They realized that we ought to find a solution for kids with seizures and other hurting Georgians.
We’ve had a challenge with law enforcement, who have said all we’re doing is opening the door to legalizing for recreational use, which is an absolute no-go, no-starter in Georgia. We’ve had challenges from the faith-based organizations, including a church group that I am a member of has come out against us. We’ve had it from all fronts.
And then I also have people mad at me because they don’t think I’m going far enough. Some of the angriest people have been those who have said I won’t support you because I don’t think you’re moving the ball far enough.
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I’ve read reports that you’ve brought medical cannabis back to Georgia from other states, essentially breaking federal law. Is there any truth to that?
Well, I’ve got to be very careful what I say. This is what I’ve told folks: We’ve made sure that the parents and citizens that are properly registered with the state have gotten access to medicine that they can legally possess within the state.
Do you ever feel you’re risking your career?
There is absolutely a certain amount of risk in this, but it’s no greater risk than every other parent and every other citizen who are properly registered and want access to medical cannabis, not any greater risk than what they’re facing.
Me putting myself on the line just shows the lunacy of our laws to make criminals out of parents and citizens that only want medicine to improve the quality of their life. At some point, we’ve got to wake up to that — not only in Georgia, but in our country.
I can tell you this: Any risk I’ve taken has been worth every bit of it. When I check with the mom of a child whose life has been transformed — not healed, not made completely whole, but their quality of life has been made better through the use of medical cannabis — I’m telling you, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Gov. Nathan Deal has said he’s against your proposal to expand medical cannabis. Do you think he would veto HB 722 if it passes?
We’re working diligently with the governor and his team to try to come up with a bill that he could get comfortable with. We’ve decided to address all of the concerns and the issues that he has expressed. Most of those have to do with law enforcement concerns, so we’ve tried to address those. And so I’m hopeful that we can get to a point that he could, if not wholeheartedly support, not veto. But I’ve got a tough road ahead of me to get there. We’ve gone down this path with the governor before, where he had concerns in the bill that we had started to introduce last year and we were able to get to a compromise solution. A step one, if you will. I’m hopeful that by working with the governor to address his concerns and working with my colleagues, we’ll come up with something that does work, that allows access to safe, lab-tested, consistent product here in Georgia.
There are currently seven pieces of cannabis-related legislation pending in the Legislature. Do you support any others?
I can tell you this: I am laser-focused on one, and I think that mine is the most comprehensive and has the best chance of passage. It has the support of the Speaker of the House [David Ralston] who just made a very courageous decision to support this next step, the next logical step for Georgia. I’m going to stay focused on that. Any others, if they get to the House floor for a vote, then we’ll debate them and consider them at that time.
You’ve come to be known as the godfather of the medical marijuana movement in Georgia. Have you heard that one before?
I have. [laughs] I’ve heard a few things. It’s almost comical, the idea. A conservative Republican, never smoked marijuana in my life, to be now known as the godfather of medical cannabis is really quite comical. I’ve been captured by the plight of families and citizens that are hurting in Georgia, and all they want is access that could potentially improve their quality of life, and that’s what’s captured me.
The courage that these families show who have special needs children is just overwhelming. They face challenges and difficulties on a daily basis that most of us cannot even relate to at all. To see them fight for this issue and to fight for their children and the courage that they show, it’s made me very proud to be even a very small part of their lives, and it challenges me to keep fighting what I’m facing: nearly insurmountable odds. That’s been a very special part of this process.
One thing Leafly advocates for is a change in federal policy, rescheduling cannabis from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II (or lower) substance, which would open the door for medicinal cannabis in all states.
You know, we hadn’t talked about that yet, but that’s the logical answer for a lot of the challenges Georgia faces and a lot of other states are facing. We need action at the federal level. Believe me, we are working our senators and our [representatives] and congressmen, but you know what? We can’t wait on them. Because while we’re waiting for the government to act, children are dying. Citizens are suffering. Grandmothers with multiple sclerosis are hurting.
And so, while the ultimate solution is some congressional action, we’ve got to control the destiny for our own citizens here in Georgia by passing logical, sensible, safe legislation for access to medical cannabis here in Georgia.
Is this a legacy issue for you?
I have to say it’s not the legacy I had in mind! I’ve done banning texting while driving, I’ve done stuff for Alzheimer’s. Never thought this would be what I was known for. But it’s been worth it, every bit of political capital I’ve spent. It’s been worth every bit of financial resources that I’ve invested, which has been significant, helping some of these families go to Colorado and come back. We started an organization called Journey of Hope, where we provided six months of rent and airfare and accommodations for these families to go to Colorado and back, when our original legislation failed in 2014.
You can do tax law all day long, but boy, being able to be a part of legislation that changes the quality of people’s lives? It doesn’t get any better than that in politics.