Being the first cannabis dispensary in the state of Georgia, you can imagine that cannabis legislation is a constant topic of discussion. With notable disdain for the blatant cronyism of the Medical Marijuana Commission, for the past three years we have watched with eager eyes as the General Assembly has deliberated, waffled, and ultimately failed to deliver on any meaningful cannabis legislation to our state. On April 4th, the General Assembly ended their session, leaving Georgia one of only nineteen states in the U.S. to prohibit retail marijuana sales.
Not to say there hasn’t been something of an effort, of course. The most recent session saw the Senate propose a bill to legalize recreational use (SB 263), along with both chambers proposing resolutions to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow retail marijuana sales in state lines. All three legislative proposals failed, naturally, but we can learn a lot from the legislation that was proposed, and that’s what we’ll be doing in this blog. We’ll be summarizing all three pieces of legislation, looking at their pros and cons, and finally making a recommendation on what the legislation should look like for the 2023 session.
Georgia Senate Bill 263 was a partisan bill with 11 sponsors that attempted to legalize retail marijuana sales in Georgia. The bill, proposed in February and dead by March, spends a great deal of time defining specific terms such as “License”, “Premises”, “Retail Marijuana” and all the other terms that would need defining for such a legislation. However, hidden within all the legalese are some regulations that would raise eyebrows in the Cannabis Community.
Firstly, the bill makes an intentional distinction between ‘Industrial Hemp’ and ‘Retail Marijuana’, which is an intriguing distinction to make. One camp may interpret this as a positive, because it may indicate the Hemp Industry will not have to suffer the regulation of the Retail market. Farmers who grow their hemp for textiles and companies that operate off of hemp related cannabinoids should be able to continue their operations as normal, uninterrupted. However, another camp may interpret this clause as an indication of moving towards describing all cannabinoids as “Retail Marijuana”. Ultimately castrating the effective language of the 2018 Farm Bill, and returning Hemp farming and manufacturing in Georgia to almost entirely textile purposes. In either case, the language in this section is exceptionally vague, and would most definitely require more clarification before having any chance of passing one chamber, let alone two.
Secondly, if you thought a bill legalizing cannabis would be your golden ticket, you might be disappointed to learn there will be a bit of additional red tape for you to jump through. According to the bill, Local Jurisdictions will retain the ability to refuse Retail Marijuana Establishments to open within their lines, employers will still be able to test employees for marijuana use, and landlords will be able to prohibit the use, production, growth, or sale of retail marijuana on the premises of their property. If you’re a cannabis brand in the state, it’s also important to note this bill would have prohibited all ability to advertise. The bill exclusively prohibits marketing campaigns in mass markets digitally or anywhere with “a high likelihood of being seen by minors”, no claims of health benefits, and no location based advertising campaigns.
The final set of regulations in this failed bill regulated different aspects of the cannabis industry as far as production and packaging, and laid the groundwork for facility inspections and licensure. The most notable regulations in this section, I found, were in regards to edibles and out of state sales. The bill specifically denoted the edibles may not exceed 10mg THC per serving, and packages of edibles may not exceed 100mgs per package, while also stating that out of state consumers “may not purchase more than ¼ ounce of cannabis or ¼ ounce equivalent of cannabis product”. No purchase limit is listed for Georgia residents, nor is “¼ ounce equivalent of cannabis product” defined by the bill.
There are many aspects of this bill that are good steps forward. Allocating tax proceeds to education and infrastructure, no listed limit on operating licenses issued by the state, and even the fact that this is an attempt at cannabis legislation is a step forward. But this is not a well thought out bill, and is a half baked proposal, no pun intended. There is no definition for, or establishment of a medical cannabis program. This implies that the current “medical cannabis” program (GA HB 324) Georgia has adopted would remain and that simply cannot happen. There was no clause to pardon cannabis related misdemeanors committed on or before the date of the bills passing, which should be a default clause in every state’s cannabis legislation. There was also no provision to allow the growth of personal plants for personal use, which seems odd, given how common similar provisions have become in modern cannabis legislation. Ultimately SB 263 died before getting out of committee, likely due to many of the reasons listed above.
Georgia House Resolution 281 was a proposal to the General Assembly to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow the sale and use of retail marijuana to and by adults 21 years old or older. This was a partisan proposal that had one sponsor (the author, R-David Clark, 98th District) and was not ratified by the House of Representatives. The proposed amendment would see tax proceeds from retail marijuana sales be directed toward drug rehabilitation and mental illness treatment programs, as well as law enforcement agencies to improve response to calls related to drug use/addiction. The amendment would also pardon all cannabis related misdemeanors committed on or before January 1, 2023 (date of effectiveness).
With only one sponsor, it’s clear there is little interest in the General Assembly House of Representatives in moving any cannabis related legislation forward during their terms. However, there is a great deal of good intention in the proposal from the only pro-cannabis Republican in the General Assembly. The idea of treating drug addiction as a mental illness is very reminiscent of the Portuguese Drug Model, which has proven exceptionally effective since the early 2000’s. I’m also appreciative of the pardoning clause. However, like the Senate Bill earlier, this proposal offers no provisions to adjust or redress the terrible medical cannabis legislation that currently holds in Georgia (Georgia’s Hope Act, GA HB 324). Ultimately, this bill never even gained enough support to make it past the hopper.
Senate Resolution 165 was the Senate’s proposal to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow retail and medical marijuana sales for adults 21 years old and older. This resolution was a 100% partisan proposal with 16 Democrat sponsors which ultimately died shortly after introduction. Under this amendment, medical cannabis sales would be tax exempt (which is pretty progressive legislation for this state) while tax proceeds from retail sales would be split evenly between education and infrastructure. This proposal would also pardon all cannabis related misdemeanors committed on or before December 31, 2022 (date of effectiveness).
Out of the three dead proposals, this one was the best. By amending the Georgia Constitution to allow medical cannabis, it forces the General Assembly to readdress the existing medical cannabis legislation to ensure it coincides with the amendment. In doing so, the General Assembly would have the opportunity to rectify the many blunders made in passing the existing medical cannabis legislation. The tax exemption for medical cannabis was a beautiful touch, and one that will certainly be appreciated by the many medical cannabis patients Georgia will have once we finally pass meaningful legislation. States that have passed legislation where tax proceeds are split between education and infrastructure have seen near immediate improvements in both areas, which Georgia could certainly benefit from as a state (ranking 30th in the U.S. in Educational Performance, according to a 2018 study by ‘Education Week’).
In any situation where cannabis is finally legalized in the state of Georgia, we’re going to need to amend the state’s constitution to allow the sales of retail and medical marijuana within the state borders. It is imperative that the amendment state both “retail” and “medical” marijuana. The current legislation we have for medical cannabis in Georgia (GA HB 324) is abysmal. Less than 5% THC non-vapeable, non-smokeable, non-edible tinctures only, with only 6 operating licenses given out by the state and a list of about 10 illnesses that get you qualified. This is the most restrictive medical cannabis in the country and it’s not even close. It needs to be redressed and our legislature won’t look at it unless they’re forced to. By amending the constitution, the General Assembly would be compelled to revisit the current cannabis legislation to ensure it coincides with the amendment, affording an opportunity to revise the medical program in the state to a point where it has a chance to function properly.
After the Constitution has been amended, the General Assembly must pass legislation to establish laws regarding medical marijuana programs and retail sales of cannabis to adults 21 years old or older. To be frank, I’m quite tired of suffering from laws written by people who don’t understand the subject. I would love to prevent cannabis from falling victim to a long tradition of ignorant legislation, so I hope state legislators will be mindful of the following next January:
- Abandon the idea of limiting the number of medical/retail cannabis operating licenses. Under GA HB 324, there were 6 licenses given to 6 licensees. Each license allows you to grow, process, and sell. You have effectively legislated an oligopoly into the cannabis industry before it’s even had a chance to develop. I can’t own a restaurant AND a liquor store at the same time in this state but you volunteered to give an entire industry to 6 entities. Honestly, what were you thinking? Do not attempt this in your final draft.
- Keep the tax exemption for medical marijuana. That was a great addition. Kudos where they’re due.
- Include provisions to allow adults 21+ to grow plants for personal use. As far as I am aware, every state with recreational marijuana allows residents to grow between 5-12 plants per adult per house. This is a crucial aspect, do not overlook this.
- Expand the list of illnesses and ailments that qualify you for medical cannabis. I’ve taken the liberty of providing a link to United Patients Group with a list of illnesses treatable with cannabis. If you need help understanding the range of this incredible plant, please take a moment to visit https://unitedpatientsgroup.com/resources-illnesses-treatable-with-medical-cannabis/
- Do not include provisions that prohibit cannabis companies from advertising the positive effects of cannabis. If there is a medical marijuana program in the state already, it means that we’ve collectively acknowledged that marijuana has medicinal value. You can’t openly acknowledge medicinal value and then prevent me from discussing said medicinal value. That would be a hell of a dichotomy.
- Do not include provisions that can allow employers to fire employees for testing positive for THC. Obviously, using cannabis on the clock is one thing. Employers can, and should, be able to draw regulations about their own premises and hours of employment. But Stanial Jimothy isn’t getting fired from his forklift job for being an alcoholic when he goes home. So why is Bobert Tomathan getting fired for getting high off the clock? He didn’t come to work high, what’s the problem?
- Do include provisions to pardon cannabis related crimes on or before the date of effectiveness. You can’t have people in jail for selling/possessing/using cannabis while others are getting rich off of it. Absolve it from their record. I’d go as far as to say you shouldn’t stop at misdemeanors, personally.
- Include provisions to require Continued Education Programs for cannabis employees. This is an industry with a lot of misinformation. Education remedies misinformation far more than regulation does. If a hairdresser and a real estate agent need constant education to stay up to date for their jobs; Budtenders, Dispensary Managers, Grow Houses and Production facilities will need the same.
There are more aspects of cannabis legislation we could discuss, and certainly more recommendations I could make but this blog has gone on long enough at this point, I suppose. Cannabis legalization in this state has been a long, grueling journey. There is definitely more work to do but change is on the horizon. At this point, we can only hope our legislators will embrace change and promote less restrictive legislation on a plant that can do so much good for the world. However, it has been 3 years since Georgia has seen any real advancement in cannabis laws. It’s clear the House has no interest in forwarding cannabis legislation and the Senate is blocked by timid lawmakers who fear change. I’m by no means proposing that all Republicans are against legalization, and clearly not all Democrats are pro-legalization either. In fact, it seems there are many in the Georgia General Assembly, regardless of party, who are perfectly content watching the rest of the country flourish under the wonderful benefits of legalized cannabis. At least at Alpine Dispensary, we’ll be sure to consider these facts November 8th.