Georgia marijuana regulator gets closer to issuing licenses

Georgia regulators are getting closer to issuing licenses to grow medical marijuana, but isn’t quite there yet.

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission voted Wednesday to finalize scores given to grower applications. Those scores will be used to award licenses, but the commission stopped short of awarding them.

After nearly two hours of closed executive session, the commission chair addressed members of the public who had tuned in to the virtual meeting to say they would not award licenses yet, while acknowledging tension over the pace of the application approval process.

"Please do not blow up the phone of staff or anybody else, or commissioners," said Commission Chairman Dr. Christopher Edwards. "Let them go home to their families."

Joshua Littrell, CEO of Veterans for Cannabis, said he’s eager for the commission to issue licenses.

"We are so very close, but still so far away," Littrell said. "At this time, they know the winners, so what are we waiting on? No one is going to withdraw their application. These businesses didn’t tie up millions of dollars to then just back out at the last minute."

Nearly 70 companies have applied for six licenses to be issued.

The commission previously promised to issue licenses by June 30. Patients and applicants have grown frustrated by the wait.

Edwards, who is unpaid as chair, said the commission will publish "intent to award information" at the next meeting, but did not indicate when that will be.

The commission’s next step is to contact applicants "to find out interest or extensions or responses or withdrawals, as necessary," Edwards said.

Georgia legalized low-THC oil and products for people with medical conditions in 2015, but didn’t create a legal framework for production until last year.

Zane Bader, co-founder of the Georgia Cannabis Trade Association, has said applicants have voiced concerns about the process, and whether the agency has the staffing or ability to answer questions about the complexities of the application requirements. Hundreds of questions have been submitted by businesses and published in a document on the commission’s website, many of them answered with the phrase: "The Applicant should determine its approach without an expectation for Commission guidance on business processes."

"As a trade association, one of the things we’re trying to do is make sure that the commission has the resources to adequately do their job, and all the businesses have an environment where they can actually thrive and excel," Bader said. "I think that there are going to have to be changes to the way the program is set up to make that happen."

The commission’s executive director, Andrew Turnage, hasn’t responded to questions about the commission’s timeline, funding or staffing.

According to the commission’s annual report, Turnage is the only paid staff member.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget originally recommended the commission receive a startup budget of $1.2 million. Instead, lawmakers allocated $225,000 for the 2020 budget year. The commission reported that funding didn’t cover its basic expenses. For the just-concluded 2021 budget year, the commission requested $531,000 to fund operating expenses and add an attorney. It received $352,137.

Former Republican state Rep. Allen Peake of Macon was a leading supporter of legalizing low THC oil when he was in the General Assembly. He has continued to work with what he characterized as an "underground network" to bring the oil from out of state to Georgia families. Importing the oil is illegal. He has applied for a processing license.

"We’re two years from passing a bill that said you could grow, process and distribute medical cannabis oil in our state," he said. "But we don’t have the licenses issued to folks to allow them to do that yet."

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