Medical marijuana bill finds new life

Medical marijuana bill may not be dead

ATLANTA -- A bill that would expand medical marijuana access in Georgia gained new life, Tuesday, at the state Capitol.

House bill 722 was all but dead when it stalled in a Senate committee on Monday. However, the bill was resurrected Tuesday when supporters attached its language to an old Senate bill.

The bill would open up cannabis oil to a larger group of patients by adding six conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, to the list of allowed illnesses and diseases in the current law.  It also would specify no punishment for companies willing to ship it into Georgia. Earlier in the legislative session, language allowing in-state cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes was removed from the bill in a House committee.

The amended bill could go to a vote in the House as soon as Wednesday. If passed, it would then go to the Senate for a vote.

A war of words has erupted between the lawmaker accused of originally killing the bill and parents fighting desperately for its passage.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committtee, said Monday that the bill wouldn't see a full Senate vote. 

"When the bill came over from the House, the families were split," Unterman said Monday. "I had half the families come to me and ask me to hold the bill and I had half the families who wanted to move the bill."

The move surprised some parents. 

"Frankly, as one of the families who she's now blaming on halting the bill, I'm shocked and amazed that we went to her, seeking her advice, and seeking to work with her  because she worked with House Bill 1 last year," said Dale Jackson. "To hear how she twisted our words and our questions to her as we no longer support the bill. I'm shocked."

So what exactly made Unterman quash the issue at such a late date? Former legislator Doug Teper has a theory.

"It is quite often, somebody in [the Senate] leadership who is sending a message via their chairman to kill a bill or move a bill," Teper said.

An exclusive 11Alive poll conducted last month showed 67 percent of Georgians were in favor of legalizing growing marijuana for medical purposes.

Two years ago, Unterman was a key player in a political stalemate that ended up killing the original medical marijuana bill. Back then, she blamed the House Speaker for killing a bill she said she wanted, so she, in turn, killed the medical marijuana bill that the House wanted.

"We wanted both bills passed, that was our stance from the beginning, and we never receded from that stance," Unterman said on March 20, 2014.

Another bill that would require testing of backlogged DNA rape kits also appears to be dead. The second part would require a strict timetable for testing of all future evidence collected.

Unterman told 11Alive that she didn't think the bill was necessary and that its author was politically motivated.

"If there was a problem, I would have been Johnny on the spot and I would have written the legislation," she said.

Now victims' advocates are lighting up social media, suggesting anyone and everyone call Unterman's office to demand why she killed two highly popular bills in one swift move.

Unterman was non-committal late Tuesday afternoon when 11Alive asked her about supporters' efforts to force a vote on the medical marijuana bill in the Senate.

"I'd have to wait and see when it comes over [from the House]," she said.

Parents at the Capitol Tuesday, lobbying to try to save the bill for their children who would benefit from medical marijuana, were thrilled when the bill's sponsor, Rep. Allen Peake, (R) Macon, convinced a House committee to support the plan to try to keep it alive.

"It's not dead, we have hope," said Erin Fisk.  "That's all we're asking for.  We want a chance, and we hope that our kids can get the care that they need."

Sen. Unterman is unphased at the criticism she's been receiving.  When 11Alive asked her about people nicknaming her a "bill killer," she smiled.  "I've been [in] elected [office] a long time, and I've been called a lot of names, but I've tried to do the best of my ability."

But she will not explain why she shut down her committee for the year before taking up two of the most popular -- and bi-partisan -- bills on the table, except to say the committee did not receive the bills from the House in time to consider them.

The rape kit bill was referred to her committee on February 24th.  The medical marijuana bill was referred to her committee on March 2.

"It's the end of the session, I had 70 bills in the committee... we're down to the 38th and 39th and 40th days [of the 40-day legislative session]," and she declared the brief interview over, walking away, saying, "I appreciate it, thank you very much."


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