New challenge filed asking court to open up Georgia’s secretive medical cannabis regulations

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]


May 8, 2023

Some of Georgia’s 27,000-odd patients signed up to the state’s THC oil registry were finally able to buy their first legal dose at the end of April as Trulieve, one of the companies approved to make and sell the drug, opened stores in Marietta and Macon.

Trulieve plans to open a third location in Pooler near Savannah, and another company, Botanical Sciences LLC, aims to open shops in Pooler and Marietta. But while the stores’ products may bring relief to patients suffering from serious maladies like cancer and seizure disorders, they will bring no relief to those afflicted by harsh vibes stemming from the contentious approval process.

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As court battles continue over licenses, an open government group announced Friday it is asking the state Supreme Court to reverse lower court decisions and release court records from the fraught approval process.

“Georgia’s new licensing process for medical cannabis distribution has been fiercely protested by profound claims of corruption as to the process and procedure, and other serious allegations as to the fitness, capabilities, and qualifications of the winning bidders to produce this health-care product,”the April 30 filing by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation says. “The harm that the public will suffer from the continued practice of secret litigation will undoubtedly be exponential.”

The state Legislature legalized low-THC medical cannabis oil to patients with several severe conditions in 2015, but the law did not allow a way for patients to legally receive the drug. Four years later, lawmakers passed a bill creating a process for six companies to grow the plants and produce the oil, which can only contain a small amount of THC, the compound which causes marijuana users to become high.

That process did not go as smoothly as elected officials had intended. Some of the companies that submitted unsuccessful bids for licenses said they were not treated fairly, and court cases continue over four more licenses for more limited facilities than Trulieve and Botanical Sciences.

The foundation says it’s tough to know how accurate those companies’ claims are because the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission has been operating out of the public eye.

In June 2022, a judge in the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings sealed all records related to litigation from the disputes. A Fulton County Superior Court judge upheld that ruling in February, and in April, the Appeals Court of Georgia rejected a discretionary appeal from the foundation.

In its filing, the foundation called the lower courts decisions “wildly out of alignment” with Georgia Supreme Court precedent supporting citizens’ right to inspect judicial records and said the lower decisions threaten “the reputation and integrity of the judicial process by creating a rule that administrative tribunals are exempt from transparency, even when they are deciding the health care rights of millions of Georgians, and by further holding that no member of the public can challenge that rule.”

Hartwell Republican state Rep. Alan Powell, a supporter of the low-THC program, said the commission has been unavailable to lawmakers as well.

“One of the problems that I had was at the hearings that we had in ‘22, where we called the executive director, he refused to answer any questions to a standing committee of the House,” Powell said. “And we kept asking the question, what was taking so long, why was it taking so long to make the authorization and the licenses for these operations? And he refused to answer the questions, and his comment was that under the legislation passed that they were prohibited from answering any questions.”

Powell this year filed House Bill 196, which would have made the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission subject to state open meetings and open records laws. The bill passed the House and Senate in different forms, but the two chambers did not reach an agreement by the end of the session in late March.

“This should be a good example for all legislators, current and future, that any time that any legislation is passed, there needs to be a specification, that these records are open to the public and to the legislature, because that is the only way to ensure that things are being done the right way,” he said.

Sales brisk first week

Visitors to Trulieve’s Marietta location last week stepped into a sleek front office and waiting room where a worker greeted them and asked for their physician-issued medical card before sending them through a door into a sales room with small boxes of the low-THC products inside glass display cases.

The number of patients on the registry ticked up slightly with the opening of the first stores, up to 26,887 on Wednesday, from 26,590 on April 20.

Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission Executive Director Andrew Turnage told WABE News that number is expected to grow to 100,000.

General Manager Holly Chapman said she’s helped customers who have traveled up to an hour and a half to get the medicine, but the feeling most shoppers express is happiness that they can finally get their medicine without traveling even further or skirting the law.

“Everyone’s coming in really excited,” she said. “Everyone’s just happy that we’re here. We’re also excited to have to be able to help. We’ve noticed that all of our patients coming in are just really happy.”

Powell said he’s happy too that patients can finally access their medicine, but he’d be much happier if the process had been more open and more locations were available in other parts of the state.

“I believe competition to be good,” he said. “I believe in the free market and free enterprise system. And what you have is you have two companies that have this monopoly, and it depends on the court action, but I don’t know if the courts will settle this now. The folks that have filed suit because they felt that they were wronged by the process of the licensing from this secretive operation from the cannabis commission, they had a right to file litigation, and depending on how the courts rule on any of these different steps along the way, this could be solved in two months, it could be solved in six months, it could be solved in twelve months.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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