Final approval for medical cannabis bill as session nears end


Only two legislative days remain in the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly. With final adjournment scheduled for Thursday, April 2, the House of Representatives and the Senate are working to resolve several major issues, including transportation funding, the fiscal year 2016 state budget, insurance coverage for young autism patients, among others.

One of the highlights of the past week was on March 25 when House members voted to give final approval to a Senate-amended version of legislation that would authorize the use of cannabis oil to treat certain medical conditions in Georgia. Senate changes to HB 1, known as the Haleigh's Hope Act, included the addition of clinical trials of medical cannabis within the University System of Georgia.

The legislation, which now awaits the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal to become law, would legalize the use of cannabis oil consisting of no more than 5 percent THC would be authorized for the treatment of cancer, ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), seizure disorders related to epilepsy or head trauma, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson's disease and sickle cell disease.

Gov. Deal has already signed an executive order notifying state agencies to prepare for the law to take effect when he signs the legislation shortly after the end of the session.

New Markets Jobs Act: The Senate voted March 27 to approve an amended version of the New Markets Jobs Act (HB 439), which I introduced to assist underserved and rural areas by establishing an investment fund to help put more capital investments for small businesses in those areas. Through tax credits, New Markets initiatives help entrepreneurial small business owners create private sector jobs and expand their businesses.

The Senate amended the legislation by attaching the Invest Georgia Tax Credit, an initiative strongly supported by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to create a venture capital fund to make investments in Georgia-based businesses to keep jobs in Georgia. HB 439 now goes back to the House for consideration of that amendment.

Opportunity School District: The House voted March 25 to give final legislative approval to a proposed constitutional amendment for the creation of an Opportunity School District, through which the state would intervene in the operation of Georgia schools that consistently fail to meet certain performance standards.

With SR 287 having already been approved by the Senate, the proposal will appear on the 2016 general election ballot. If a majority of voters vote yes, the constitutional amendment will become law.

House members also approved SB 133, the enabling legislation that would take effect if the constitutional amendment passes.

Under the legislation, initiated by Gov. Nathan Deal, failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 for three years in a row on the College and Career Performance Index, which is Georgia's current rating system for school performance.

The Governor would have the authority to appoint a Superintendent of the Opportunity School District, subject to the Senate's confirmation. Four intervention models are outlined in the legislation, allowing the district to directly manage the schools, close them, partner with local school districts to run them or convert them into charter schools.

Marsh Protection: On March 26, the House voted unanimously to approve an amended version of legislation to re-establish a 25-foot buffer zone to protect coastal Georgia's saltwater marshes.

House members strengthened SB 101 by giving the state authority to review any land-disturbing projects that are awarded buffer zone exemptions by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has also pledged to prohibit the building of makeshift bulkheads along the marsh by property owners.

The legislation reflects an agreement between the environmental and business communities. On March 27, the Senate gave final passage to the House version of SB 101, sending it to the Governor for his signature.

Other House Action: Resolutions approved by House members in the past week include:
• HR 419 to encourage Congress to extend authorization for the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area to receive federal funding from the National Park Service through 2021.
• HR 601 to create the House Study Committee on Saltwater Intrusion into Coastal Aquifers.
• HR 640 to create the Joint Study Committee on Health, Education and School-Based Health Centers.
• HR 641 to create the Joint Study Committee on Children's Mental Health.
• HR 642 to create the Joint Study Committee on Postsecondary Education and Employment Options for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Senate legislation receiving House approval includes:
• An amended version of SB 2, which would provide for the awarding of a high school diploma to a student who completes specified postsecondary coursework.
• SB 62, which would remove certain limitations on the jurisdiction of the probate courts over game and fish code misdemeanor violations.
• An amended version of SB 72, which would provide a measure of equivalency in the punishment of crimes committed against police dogs in the performance of their official duties.
• An amended version of SB 88, which would authorize the payment of employee wages by credit to a payroll card.
• An amended version of SB 94, which would require a procedure for enhancing witness identification accuracy.
• SB 112, which would prohibit the removal or transport of game animal or game bird carcasses, except in compliance with applicable harvest recording and report laws and Board of Natural Resources regulations.

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