By Lyle Harris
Republican lawmaker Allen Peake of Macon has emerged as Georgia’s unlikely “dean” of medical marijuana. Peake strongly opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use. But he’s a staunch champion in the fight to provide legal access for Georgians suffering with chronic illnesses who benefit from cannabis oil, a form of marijuana that offers relief without getting users high. In the first installment of the I-420 Georgia travelogue series, I interviewed Peake at his office in Bibb County. Peake spoke openly about the challenges that advocates face in expanding Georgia’s existing medical marijuana law, and the unusual (and illegal) steps he’s taking to aid patients in the meantime.
Q: How did you wind up at the forefront of this very controversial issue?
A: A reporter was talking to me about medical marijuana in 2014 and I said there was no way the Georgia Legislature would even consider medical marijuana. I had no interest in doing that so it’s pretty much a dead issue. I week later, I got an email from a mom who lives in my district and she told me about her daughter Haleigh who was having 100 to 200 seizures a day and they were looking to move to Colorado where the medical cannabis oil was legal and had potential for children with seizures. It really intrigued me because she was my constituent. And because here we (Republicans) are as the party of family values having laws that were causing families to be split up. A mom with a special needs child being forced to leave her husband and support network and her church. A couple of days later, I went and met little Haleigh. She was in the ICU at Egleston (Hospital) on her deathbed. When I met her and saw her, it hit me with the question every one of us has to ask: “What would I do if this was my child?” That’s what set the wheels in motion for me. You know I’d crawl over broken glass if this was my grandchild to get medicine for her. That set the wheels in motion to allow medical cannabis oil for kids with seizures.
Q: What happened then?
A: I then began to meet other families who had the same type of situation. Most of them had kids with seizures. We tried to pass something in the 2014 session and the bill got killed in a miserable show of political gamesmanship in the House and the Senate. It was real failure. I felt like I had failed these families. We started a fund called the Journey of Hope with my wife and my business partners and we funded it with a significant amount of money to pay for families to move to Colorado. We paid for their airfare out there and moving expenses and six months worth of rent to see if this could potentially benefit their families. We had 17 families signed up. And every single one of them found significant reduction in seizures, improved cognitive ability and they found out this works. We established a medical cannabis study committee to look at whether this was something worth doing in our state. We gained a tremendous amount of momentum into 2015 and we introduced HB 1 which is Haleigh’s Hope Act. It didn’t go as far as I would have liked but it passed on April 16, 2015. For the first time, it provided citizens the right to legally possess medical cannabis oil with a low amount of (psychoactive) THC for eight medical conditions.
Q: What did the legislation mean for the affected families?
A: It was an emotional time and it was a huge step. These families could come home, which was huge. And we now had an infrastructure that could now at least allow for the possession of medical cannabis oil. Citizens have to be properly registered with the state with the Department of Public Health. They have to have a doctor certify that they have the medical condition. You can’t just say I have Crohn’s Disease. You have to have a doctor say that you do before you can get the registration card. That kicked off since that time and up to this time there’s a thousand patients that are registered. As part of HB 1 we set up the Medical Marijuana Commission. The purposes of it was should we have an in-state cultivation model here in Georgia so people can access it here in Georgia. At the end of the day, the vote was 11 to 5, with 11 voting against it.
Q: Were you surprised by that?
A: I was because I thought we had the momentum to move there. Two factions came out against us that really derailed the momentum. One of them was law enforcement. In particular the Sheriff’s Association who said we are not going to support anything that involves growing marijuana in our state. The other one was several faith-based communities. The Faith and Freedom Coalition which is Ralph Reed’s group as well as the Georgia Baptist Association came out strongly against it. We’re still a red state and two factions who have a tremendous amount of influence on Republican candidates said no, we don’t want it. That had a chilling effect on the momentum. I tried to introduce legislation in early 2016 that had a lot of signatures on it and a lot of support in the House. But when the Governor came out against it — as well as the faith-based community and law enforcement — it just killed it.
Q: What was the objection by law enforcement?
A: They’re concerned we’ll become Colorado if we go down this path. We took a trip out to Colorado and took several members of the commission. Law enforcement personnel met with law enforcement out there. Law enforcement’s version of the story out there is that it’s a complete disaster. That’s what was brought back to Georgia and got communicated to the Governor. They said there’s homeless people all over the place, crime is up, DUIs are up. I’m not sure the stats actually support that view.
Q: Is that true?
A: Statistics can tell a story any way you want them to spin the story. That killed legislation in 2016. We ended up passing a bill out of the House that attempted to expand (the number of medical) conditions and it never got a hearing in the Senate. I think we had another seven or eight conditions, including (post-traumatic stress disorder) autism, a rare skin disease called EB (Epidermolysis bullosa), intractable pain and AIDS/HIV. We passed HB 722 out of the House but it never even got a hearing in the Senate.
Q: So you’re not giving up?
A: Heavens no! I’ve made a commitment to these families that we’re going to provide medicine to them. They’re citizens of our state so we’re getting the medicine. I don’t know all the details of how it gets here. We get medicine here, we find families that are properly registered with the state and we provide it to them for free.
Q: Is it through your private foundation?
A: We’re all doing it personally at this point. We’ve got hundreds of families we’re providing medicine to them on a personal basis. It’s costing several thousand dollars a month. How far can we go with that? I don’t know that I go until I keel over when I’m 75 or 80. But I hope we can go until we pass legislation that people can access it here in Georgia. We haven’t given up. No.
Q: You’re breaking the law though?
A: We’re breaking federal law. There’s no doubt about it.
Q: Is this a form of civil disobedience?
A: We’re buying medicine for people who are properly registered with the state. So we’re not violating Georgia law. It’s a clear violation to get the medicine here in Georgia and how it gets here, like I said, I don’t know and I wouldn’t tell you. It shows quite frankly, a couple of things, the need for an overhaul at the federal level. It’s imperative that Congress take action on this issue. Now there’s a hodgepodge of state laws. There are 29 states that have full-blown medical marijuana programs, another dozen that have low THC oil possession laws like we have. There are 40-something states and they’re all over the place. In the meantime, it comes down to a states’ rights issue that Republicans ought to be fighting for. That’s my pitch to my colleagues and to the Governor. We ought to be doing what we ought to do to provide for our citizens on this issue. I’m going to tee up legislation in 2017. Hopefully we can make a compelling enough argument to (the Governor) that it’s coming in Georgia.
Q: Is HB 722 coming back in the 2017 legislative session?
A: We’re working on it now and hopefully have it ready to introduce early in the session. I would imagine we would include autism as one of the medical conditions, which we have story after story of families who are making it on their own illegally. They’ve seen unbelievable results for autistic children. We’ll probably look at adding AIDS and HIV. We’ll look at adding Tourette’s Syndrome, which has seen some real results. We’ll look at adding intractable pain, which is kind of a catchall for a lot things. You could expand the list from a thousand patients to who knows how many thousands. What we’ve seen for two years now that HB 1 has been in place, the sky hasn’t fallen. We don’t have drug addicts everywhere because of HB 1. We don’t have DUI skyrocketing because of HB 1.
Q: You can’t get high from these cannabis oils anyway, right?
A: Right. So why not expand it so more Georgians who have legitimate debilitating illnesses could benefit? That’s part A. Part B, is that we put it on the ballot for 2018. We let Georgia citizens decide whether they want this issue or not. And if so, then the next governor can deal with it. And it becomes a huge issue in the governor’s race in 2018. It takes two-thirds of a majority to get it done and doesn’t require the governor’s signature.
Q: Have state Democrats been on board for this?
A: Democrats have been on board for decriminalization. I have had to take a real strong stance against that. I keep getting hammered on that. People say what you’re doing Allen is that you’re a Trojan Horse for the legalization crowd. And I say, whoa. That’s not my fight. All I want it for is medicinal purposes.
Q: Do you get any sense that the Governor has softened his position?
A: I’m not getting any indication of that whatsoever. I think we can get it through the House. Speaker David Ralston has been very sympathetic toward finding a solution for families and citizens that want this as an option. He deserves a lot of credit for moving legislation through the last couple of years. I think it will be up to Lt. Gov. Cagle, he’s probably going to be running for Governor in 2018. This is going to be an issue.
Q: What would be the game-changer for that to happen? A public groundswell?
A: The polls are already (in favor of medical marijuana). My colleagues know that. It’s just the pushback from law enforcement and the faith-based community that has had a chilling effect on my colleagues. The polls are clearly in favor with 75 to 80 percent.
Q: Are you surprised by the level of public support?
A: I’m not. I’ve been involved in this for over three years now. When I go to church, or when I go to the grocery store or I go to the ballgames, I very rarely, if ever, get anyone saying I’m heading down the wrong path. Almost every one of them say, man I’m with you on this medical cannabis issue. They say they have a relative or a friend who’s hurting and could benefit from this. I have a parent who died a couple years ago who I wish I could have provided some relief to them in their last days and months. Most people get it, you know. That’s why this tidal wave of momentum, I think, is still there.