Special Report: The Case for Cannabis

Special Report: The Case for Cannabis
Low THC cannabis oil (Source: WALB)
Low THC cannabis oil (Source: WALB)
A cannabis oil production facility in Colorado (Source: Hayleigh's Hope)
A cannabis oil production facility in Colorado (Source: Hayleigh's Hope)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Three years after Georgia put a medicinal marijuana law into place, thousands of people suffering from chronic and life-threatening disorders have seen the benefits of the drug.

But since then, getting access to cannabis oil has not gotten any easier. Just obtaining the medicine is a violation of federal law and some people are even breaking state laws to get their children this life-changing treatment.

Kayla Gibbs has endured thousands of seizures throughout her 30 years of life after being affected by encephalitis as an infant.

Nothing seemed to help.

"It was terrible to see anybody go through it. There's nothing you can do," said Scott Gibbs, Kayla's father and caretaker.

But three years ago that all changed. With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a medicinal marijuana bill into law allowing people with debilitating conditions, like Kayla, to access low THC, high CBD cannabis oil.

She improved almost immediately.

"She went from a 100 (seizures) a day down to two or three a day now," said Gibbs.

He obtained a state-issued medical marijuana card. More than 4,000 Georgians with conditions ranging from seizures to terminal cancer have been legally granted the card.

The high-CBD oil he gives his daughter comes from Colorado. But getting it delivered to his Lowndes County home is still technically illegal.

"I was able to get the oil through the mail which is a violation of federal law," said Gibbs, who launched a GoFundMe page to help with his daughter's medical expenses.

When legislation was signed in 2015, it didn't allow for the cultivation of marijuana in the state. That means those who qualify for the drug must have it shipped from states like Colorado or Washington.

"It's clearly going to become an issue for the next governor this state," said Rep. Allen Peake, (R) Macon.

Peake orchestrated the landmark bill HB1, also known as Hayleigh's Law. But he says provisions to the law have been met with fierce opposition.

"We face strong opposition from the Georgia Sheriff's Association and faith-based organizations which have a lot of influence with my Republican colleagues. We knew as long as we had opposition that it was going to be tough to pass legislation that would allow cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Georgia," said Peake.

The growing need for medical cannabis has led some self-described "cannabis outlaws" like Bobby Thornton to take matters into their own hands.

"What's right and wrong doesn't always match up to what's legal and illegal," said Thornton.

In 2016, Worth County Sheriff's deputies raided Thornton's home where he manufactured medicinal marijuana – a product he says he gave away for free.

The country rapper, known as "Homegrown" in his viral music videos, was sentenced to 10 years probation.

Despite the punishment, he says it's not stopping his mission of helping sick people.

"If the state allowed the people to have homegrown marijuana, homegrown cannabis to medicate themselves and their children properly, I wouldn't need to be risking my family, risking my job and going to jail. I wouldn't be doing any of these things," said Thornton.

Thornton says he has helped people with chronic pain and even cancer come off dangerous opioid painkillers.

For people like Jennifer Conforti, Thornton is a hero.

"They're heroes. One hundred percent. People like Bobby are here and are willing to take a chance to break law to help people. People like that are definitely heroes," she said.

Conforti's 7-year-old daughter, Abby, suffers from severe autism which causes self-hurting behavior like arm biting. But she says low-THC oil allowed in Georgia doesn't help her child's condition.

This has led her to illegally obtain marijuana to manufacture her own oil to treat her daughter.

"The medical cannabis that I have to give her, which is much higher THC level than 5-percent, has allowed us to function as a family and her to be able to function as a child," said Conforti.

"Why would lawmakers deny this medicine that works. We know it works," she said.

"We've continued to put families and citizens who have legitimate debilitating illnesses in a quagmire of what do they do now they have the card. We've got to find a solution to access. It's imperative upon to the legislature and the next governor of this state," said Peake.

In 2018, the state passed a law expanding the conditions of those who can receive medical cannabis to include PTSD and intractable pain. But some lawmakers have stalled, calling for the federal government to step in.

Earlier this year, Lt. Governor and GOP gubernatorial candidate Casey Cagle released a statement on medical cannabis following the creation of a new Low THC Medical Access Commission.

We are taking a major step to ensure that our state is doing everything possible to provide patients with the most effective treatments through a safe, reliable, and accessible system. Going forward, I call on our federal leaders to step up and support our efforts by clarifying the law to ensure that no family is denied medication that could drastically improve their lives. - Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle

For now, proponents of expanded legislation like Conforti and Thornton say they will continue to break lawmakers see the immediate need for change.

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