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How 'marijuana refugees' brought legal cannabis to Georgia

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order Friday to prepare for legislation that would make Georgia the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana.

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Rep. Allen Peake, (R) of Macon, Ga. kisses Haleigh Cox, 5, who suffers seizures, after the House approved 'Haleigh's Hope Act,' a bill legalizing possession of cannabis oil for treatment of certain medical conditions Wednesday, in Atlanta. House lawmakers agreed, 160-1, Wednesday to the compromise measure sending the bill to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal after a two-year legislative battle. Representative Peake hopes the measure will convince 17 Georgia families with sick children to return from Colorado, where marijuana is legal.

David Goldman/AP

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Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday said he would sign into law a bill that would make the Peach State the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana, continuing the rapid expansion of cannabis into the Deep South and underscoring a dramatic shift in pot politics for social conservatives in the US.

With Governor Deal’s OK, the law will allow certified Georgia families to possess up to 20 ounces of nonintoxicating cannabidiol extract (CBD) for use in treating symptoms of eight health conditions, without fear of prosecution.

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The law, dubbed “Haleigh’s Hope Act” after a child it will affect, could help as many as 500,000 Georgians, said Rep. Allan Peake, a Macon Republican who fought for the passage of what was only two years ago a long-shot gambit. 

Following on the heels of similar, but much narrower laws that passed last year in Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee, Deal, a Republican, has said he’s mainly reaching out to 17 “marijuana refugee” families that moved from Georgia to Colorado in order to be able to legally obtain the substance to help with their children’s treatment.

But more broadly, the sight of Southern Republican governors such as Deal, Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Gov. Rick Scott in Florida signing even narrow medical marijuana laws highlights a rapidly shifting political landscape for conservative politicians, including potential Republican presidential candidates.

“This is tough for the Republican Party because it’s got this libertarian component that says that we should legalize, period, and then you’ve got social conservatives that oppose marijuana for health, paternalistic, or moral reasons,” says Rob Mikos, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who specializes in the nexus between federalism and drug policy. “Maybe some conservatives are seeing these CBD laws as a compromise that helps a small sub-set of the population but doesn’t open the floodgates.”

Just this week, Sen. Rand Paul, a likely presidential candidate, co-sponsored with Democrats a federal bill, the CARERS Act, which marks the first time a medical marijuana bill has been introduced in both houses of Congress.

It “could represent a turning point in the national debate about this much-maligned plant,” writes libertarian drug policy expert Jacob Sullum, on Forbes.

There have been other signs of philosophical shifts among top conservatives. 

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Last year, Sen. Ted Cruz railed against the decision by the Justice Department to continue to allow states to experiment with legal recreational marijuana. But earlier this month, Senator Cruz, who announced his presidential candidacy this week, took a different tack, saying federalism should allow for states to experiment with marijuana policy without fear of federal intervention.

At the same time, some legalization proponents say the CBD-only strategy by conservatives is a prohibitionist ruse, since the laws, most of which don’t provide a legal way for patients to actually obtain the extract, still leave legitimate users susceptible to felony prosecutions.

“What appeared at first to be movement within the GOP to buck the usual tone-deaf and compassionless ‘Just Say No’ policy of drug reform has actually turned out to be nothing more than another delay tactic of prohibitionists and a new strategy for Republicans to ... appear compassionate while appeasing voters,” writes Tori LaChapelle for Ladybud, a women’s lifestyle site that advocates against marijuana prohibition. 

Alternatively, analysts say the acceptance by states like Georgia of even a highly regulated, non-psychoactive medical marijuana protocol represents a deeper debate within the Republican Party over whether helping vulnerable Americans with health conditions will in turn lead to broader acceptance of legal recreational marijuana.

Indeed, on the same day the Georgia House approved “Haleigh’s Hope Act,” a North Carolina legislative committee voted without comment to kill a medical marijuana bill. To underscore the emotional nature of the issue, one of the opponents of the law, Rep. Dean Arp, was reportedly punched in the back by an activist shortly after the vote.

“Obviously the stories are heart-wrenching,” Representative Arp told WRAL, in Raleigh, after the hearing. Still, “I don’t think [medical marijuana] is appropriate.” 

After the Georgia vote, however, Sebastian Cotte, who moved his family from Georgia to Colorado last summer so his son, Jagger, could legally receive CBD, disagreed with Arp’s sentiment.

The new law “is going to let us come home,” Mr. Cotte told WMAZ-TV in Macon.