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Medical marijuana in Georgia: A closer look 

The state’s low THC oil registry still faces legal and bureaucratic hurdles

DOES GEORGIA’S low THC oil registry work for all Georgians who need it? 

No, not unless you’re able to pay for access — and even then, no.

Before we continue, we must explore the difference between CBD and THC. 

Both CBD and THC are found in marijuana. THC is the component of the plant that can cause a high if taken in a quantity higher than what is legal in Georgia’s medical marijuana law.

CBD found in Georgia is grown from the hemp plant, which is related to the marijuana plant, but it does not contain THC.  

The low THC oil that is legal for some patients in Georgia is CBD dominant and contains minimal THC — the medication will not get you high. 

CBD has gained immensely in popularity and you can purchase it in many forms over-the-counter. Oils, capsules, lotions containing CBD are easy to find in many local Savannah pharmacies and stores - you can even purchase CBD products specifically made for your pets.  

Low THC oil is highly regulated and you can’t purchase it in Georgia yet, but it’s coming since the state legislature passed HB 324 during the last session, a law which will allow up to 9 acres of indoor growing space for medical marijuana oil.

But it could take a year or longer before state-sanctioned low THC oil is available in Georgia - the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis board has not yet been appointed and once the appointments are made, there is a lot of work to do before growing can even begin.    

Since 2015, there has been a Georgia low THC oil registry, but patients have to drive out of state or purchase online with their state-issued low THC oil registry card. Up until now, state law prohibited buying, selling or transporting the oil. 

So even though a patient had their low THC oil registry card making it legal to possess the oil, it was still illegal to obtain the oil.

There are seventeen conditions in Georgia where low THC oil is legal. Ten of the conditions are when a patient is in “severe or end stage” of their illness. 

A professional in the medical field said, “Just legalize it already. On the continuum of severity, end stage is at the end.  Nowhere to go but in the ground.”

There are only 10,543 people who reside in Georgia who have their low THC oil card versus estimated 13,676 Georgia residents who have Crohn’s Disease, one of the seventeen qualifying conditions.   

If you have a qualifying condition, first you will have to find a doctor who is willing to sign up on the Georgia Department of Public Health low THC oil directory. There is an easy, step-by-step, 13-page guide for doctors to follow, but the majority are still reluctant.  

There is one gastroenterologist in Savannah who has one patient registered to the Georgia low THC oil directory for Crohn’s Disease.

While the doctor prefers to stay anonymous, they were willing to say it was not a cumbersome process and that the Georgia Department of Public Health makes it easy for doctors to participate in the registry.   

Outside of local hospitals, SouthCoast Health is the largest provider of healthcare in Savannah, yet none of their doctors have registered a patient to the Georgia Department of Public Health low THC oil registry.     

The Georgia Department of Public Health will not release a list of doctors who participate, making it even more difficult for patients to navigate the system and find a doctor who can help them.   

Due to the lack of Savannah doctors willing to register their patients to the directory, many are having to turn to telemedicine doctors based out of Atlanta.  Dr. Linda McClain of Aerete Integrative Medicine of Atlanta is one of those doctors.  

In 2015 Dr. McClain was practicing addiction medicine along with her regular hospital work and saw this as a good fit.  She has always been concerned for patients that traditional medical therapies have not been able to help.

Dr. McClain was the first physician certified in Georgia to add patients to the low THC directory, and she said that she took a 20 hour online certification course to get started.  Since 2015, she has registered nearly 400 Georgia patients with her practice.  

Dr. McClain says the reason she thinks that more Georgia doctors don’t use the legal registry is “They don’t know anything about the potential benefits of cannabis and don’t have time or interest to invest in it. The US lags far behind other countries in empirical data on marijuana use as medicine.” 

Regarding the future of medical cannabis in Georgia, Dr. McClain says, “Hopefully continuing to expand the qualifying disorders and adding to the list of allowable forms of marijuana to include key uses like topical applications and edibles.”

If you’re patient that has one or more of the legal diagnoses for low THC oil, you can find out how to contact her online, but since this is not her full time medical job, you will have to leave a phone message or email. 

Dr. McClain’s services are not covered by insurance, so be prepared to pay out-of-pocket; also the oils are not covered by insurance either. But in comparison, as an example, the retail price of one medication for Crohn’s Disease is over $11,000 and comes with a long list of potential side effects including lymphoma; versus a month’s supply of low THC oil costing about $100.

This is one reason pharmaceutical corporations and their lobbyists are adamantly against cannabis.   

“Certainly I applaud Georgia for doing what has been done so far. It’s not close to many other states, but it is significant for those patients who have and will qualify under current conditions,” Dr. McClain says.

“Many find it easy to criticize the Legislature and Department of Health for not going as far or as fast as other states, but the relief that thousands in Georgia have experienced is real and should be celebrated.”

After a patient is registered, they will receive a call from the Department of Public Health in Atlanta to confirm all of their information is correct. At that point, they will print the patient’s card and mail to one of only 20 health departments in Georgia allowed to receive the cards, and each one has only one staff person trained to dispense the card. 

The patient must pick up the card in person and it will cost them $25. Savannah is fortunate to be one of the 20 locations, but a patient from Brunswick or Statesboro would have to drive to Savannah to pick up their card.

After a patient has their card, they can drive to a state where it is legal, but most states that have medical cannabis do not reciprocate. For instance, you can’t use your Georgia low THC oil card to purchase medication at a Florida THC dispensary. Therefore most patients resort to mail order their medication from California or Colorado.

The entire process will take about a month, and that can be problematic for patients who are in the “end stage” of an illness, especially those who find travel difficult and will need to drive hours to one of the limited number of Health Departments to pick up their card.   

Even with your low THC oil card, you can not travel with your medication to a state where it is not legal. Of the five states that share a border with Georgia, Florida is the only state that allows medical cannabis.

No doctor can write you a prescription for low THC oil — they can only add you to the Georgia registry if you have one of the legal qualifying conditions.  

There is much debate in the medical community over low THC oil. Many doctors feel it should be a last-line treatment when all other options have been exhausted. 

Other doctors who know that it is legal, safe, and natural think that it should be an option in their proverbial medical arsenal that they offer to their patients who are suffering.  

“Intractable pain” is one of the conditions where THC is legal in Georgia, and there is a real opportunity for doctors to register patients to the directory vs. prescribing addictive and deadly opiates. You can not become addicted to or die from low THC oil.

Once the low THC oil is produced in Georgia, there will still need to be decisions made about how it will be distributed.  The State Pharmacy Board will have to license any pharmacies wanting to sell the Georgia produced low THC oil. In Savannah there are a number of pharmacies ready to help their customers once it is legal.

“Our family pharmacy would carry low THC oil given that it is allowable by law,” says Daniel Zeigler of Medicap Pharmacy on King George Boulevard. “Every other independent pharmacy that I know of would want to carry it too. We are always willing to go the extra mile to do what is needed to help our patients.”

Karen Stephens Brown, owner of Quick Rx Drugs pharmacies located in Chatham and Effingham counties says, “We would love to sell any alternative that benefits our patients and has less side effects than opiates. Often times the anecdotal confirmation from both local physicians and patients supersedes science, and confirms my clinical judgment that it’s a great alternative.”  

Stephens Brown thinks that pharmacies are the best source to sell the low THC oil once it is produced in Georgia as local pharmacists have the best and most complete picture of the needs of each patient.

“We are ready to be the go-to source for an alternative that is less addictive, and once the Georgia Board of Pharmacy approves the policies and means of distribution, we are ready to go,” she says.

“All of our pharmacists are trained, as we already provide the THC free version that’s quality tested and made in America. Georgia is antiquated and behind the times with 33 other states already providing non-synthetic alternatives. It’s impossible to ignore the folks who simply want their child to have fewer seizures or diminish cancer pain as a result of using THC oil.” 

Low THC oil is not covered by insurance, so between telemedicine doctor bills and medication, qualifying patients should plan on spending a few thousand dollars per year. 

For the at least 24% of Savannahians who live below the poverty rate, this medication might not be attainable - but the cost to consumers would be reduced dramatically if more local doctors were willing to help their patients with this medication.  

The current state of medical cannabis in Savannah is that there is a culture of willful ignorance while patients languish in pain.  Hopefully that will improve as doctors become more educated about the current law, and once the low THC oil starts to be grown and produced in Georgia. 

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Kristy Edenfield

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