By Lyle V. Harris
After 12 years in the General Assembly, Rep. Allen Peake, the soft-spoken Macon Republican who’s considered the “godfather” of Georgia’s medical cannabis movement, is calling it quits.
Although Peake, 57, is not running for re-election, he vows to stay involved in the issue with which his name has become synonymous. Despite passing a limited medical cannabis measure in 2015, Peake and other supporters have since been stymied by Governor Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in efforts to expand the law. GOP leadership remains opposed to allowing medical cannabis to be grown in-state, a situation that leaves thousands of patients suffering with severe and chronic medical conditions without legal access to medicine they need.
Since Georgians are barred from getting locally produced cannabis oil and they risk violating federal law by transporting it across state lines, Peake has been importing it from elsewhere and distributing it – for free – to those who have a certified medical condition and are properly registered. (And yes, Peake is breaking the law.)
I recently sat down with Peake in his office in the state capitol for a lengthy discussion of his triumphs, defeats, his plans to keep on fighting for the expansion of medical cannabis in Georgia and when he predicts our state will finally become “cannabis-positive.”
Q: Why quit? Why now?
A: “I’ve never meant to make a career in politics. I’m a businessman, that’s my background. The regret is that we have not gotten to the point of cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes here. There is some sense I’m leaving it hanging The flip side is that there’s a sense with me that I’ve gotten to a point on this issue that I’m potentially an obstacle. There have been so many battles over this issue particularly with the Senate and the Senate leadership. If Casey Cagle is elected governor, it may be better to have a fresh start with someone leading the charge. I’ve sold my business (Cheddar’s restaurant chain); I’ve got five grandchildren. I don’t believe in term limits but people need to know when it’s time to go. This was just the right time for me.”
Q: Do you have any regrets about all you’ve invested in this crusade?
A: “None whatsoever. Fighting and advocating on this issue and getting to know the families, especially medical cannabis families with special needs, has been an incredible honor and privilege. The real heroes in this effort are the families. Giving up their time and their energy to come up here and advocate on behalf of their kids. There are 3,700 people on the (medical cannabis) registry right now and we’ve provided oil to 500 of them. Everyday, we’re getting more and more requests. I’m going to continue to provide medicine to families until I either run out of money or get arrested or until Georgia’s laws get changed.”
Q: Do you think that will happen eventually if not immediately?
A: “I think it all depends on who wins the governor’s race. Of the five Republican candidates, the only one that has a viable chance of winning that has committed to fixing the problem is (businessman and former Navy SEAL) Clay Tippins and that’s why I’m throwing my support behind him. Both the Democratic candidates for governor are committed to finding a solution too. If either one of them wins, that will happen. It all depends on who the next governor is.”
GOP gubernatorial candidate Clay Tippins supports medical cannabis
Q: Are you throwing up your hands in frustration because Gov. Deal opposed in-state cultivation?
A: “No. I’d been really contemplating this for about four years. The medical cannabis issue is the thing that kept me here. Here’s the deal: the medical cannabis issue is not going away. If I’m not here, it’s not going to make a difference. There will still be people fighting passionately about this issue. There is a little sense that I’m not finishing the job and that was a tug on me to hang around. But, that’s why I’m going to get so heavily involved in the Governor’s race to advocate for someone who I believe will make a difference if he wins.”
Q: Why haven’t more lawmakers, including the Governor and Lt. Governor, been moved by the same sense of compassion that motivated you?
A: “I don’t know. Maybe they haven’t taken the time to visit with the families. Maybe they have, I don’t know. It does take that personal connection with the family. There’s a political side to this. Some people think they need the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association’s endorsement or the Georgia Baptist Convention’s endorsement to win elections. Maybe that’s why they think it’s more important to get elected and get the endorsement of these folks even if it goes against what 75 percent of Georgians want. Unfortunately that’s the way it works.”
Q: What was the greatest failure on the medical cannabis front?
A: “The failure would not be getting access here in Georgia. Not being able to work it out so the 3,700 people – and growing by 200 a month – could go somewhere in Georgia and get safe, lab-tested product. That has been a real disappointment.
Q: And what was your most significant success?
A: “Our greatest success was that moment when we were on the House floor and Haleigh and her mother Janea Cox were there with us and we saw the finally passage of the Haleigh’s Hope Act and we had the governor signing it a couple days later is about as good as it gets. Every legislator hopes to have something like that and I was blessed to have it.” (Medical cannabis oil lessens young Haleigh’s severe seizure disorder.)
Gov. Deal signs medical cannabis law in 2015
(Courtesy Atlanta Magazine)
Q: Did you think you had momentum behind you back then and the dominoes were going to start falling after that?
A: “I always knew it was going to be a struggle but I still thought maybe after a year or two we’ll get access in-state. But (GOP leadership) rejected a cultivation solution. I’ve had a pinnacle of success but also seen these defeats. You learn from the losses too. They sober you up and keep you grounded.”
Q: Why do you think the medical cannabis issue isn’t going away?
A: “The family advocates are not stopping this fight just because I’m going away. I think the national movement is going to continue to push marijuana to the forefront. I think in 20 years, when my kid’s generation is running things, they will look back and wonder why it took so long for us to legalize marijuana. This tidal wave is coming.”
Q: What’s taking Georgia so long on this issue in state run by Republicans who supposedly advocate personal responsibility?
A: “I can’t figure it out either. If I could have, maybe would have had a bill passed already. Maybe it’s the reefer madness. My generation and the one before me still has that reefer madness mindset. It has been frustrating why it’s taking so long but it’s coming. Maybe it will be here next year with the right governor. If the right governor gets elected we’ll have (cannabis) seeds in the ground by next year, I have no doubt. There’ll be product being delivered to folks by the end of 2019.”
Q: Who do you see stepping into your shoes as a champion on this issue?
A: “I think Rep. Micah Gravely from Paulding County is one. He gets it. It comes from deep inside him this conviction about this issue. Rep. David Clark (R-Buford) who drafted this year’s bill to include PTSD who is a veteran and fighting for our vets to be able to have access. Rep. Michael Caldwell (R-Woodstock), Rep. Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs), Rep. Tom McCall (R-Elberton) a veteran who has been very passionate about this issue. And then there are a host of Democrats who are ready to lead the charge. There is a lot of talent ready to carry on this fight.”
State Rep. Micah Gravley (R-Douglasville) favors expansion of cannabis law
Q: Do you think the Georgia Legislature will have a “Cannabis Caucus” anytime soon?
A: “I don’t know if they’ll call themselves that (laughing). But I think there is a clear, growing majority even in our Republican caucus that it’s time to do something. Even this year, Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) – who has been chair of Health and Human Services and been opposed to this issue from Day One – she and I co-sponsored a resolution this year asking Congress to change the law.”
Q: Do you think congressional action will trigger cannabis reform in Georgia?
A: “That’s the best solution. That would take care of this hodgepodge of state laws that we have everywhere. Technically, right now, our Georgia law is a violation of federal law. Congress needs to act. We’ve started this new hashtag: #changethedamnlaw. And it’s true. It makes you scratch your head. Is there some conspiracy theory here that pharmaceutical companies have such a stranglehold on Congress that they won’t allow the changes? It makes you wonder. Why is marijuana a Schedule I Drug meaning it has no medicinal value?”
Q: What’s driving the opposition here in Georgia?
A: “I think there are some people who are afraid that we’ll become Colorado. I’ve been out there and it doesn’t seem to be a huge public health issue. There is still grave concern by some people about recreational use. They don’t want us to go down that path.”
Q: Why is that? Recreational use isn’t even on the table in Georgia.
A: “They think it’s the camel’s nose under the tent. They think once we start cultivation for medicinal use, we’re only one step away from recreational use. That’s their argument.”
Q: What about law enforcement. Do police departments fear they’ll lose money if they can’t seize people’s assets if cannabis is legalized?
A: “I believe it probably does in some respects. That’s there’s a potential loss of revenue. Sometimes it comes back to the money.”
Q: Do you think your support of this issue has hurt your political career?
A: “It probably did. I think it marginalized me as a one-issue guy and I’ve come to grips with that. But I’ve done a lot of good stuff. I was behind the banning of texting while driving, consolidated Macon-Bibb County, which was a big thing for our county. I also provided protection for dementia patients from being taken advantage of financially. Georgia’s first tax court was my bill. I’ve done some really cool stuff. But, over the last five years, I’ve become so ingrained in this issue that I’ve become marginalized. I’m good with it. I think it was worth every bit of those risks.”
Q: Do you still oppose recreational cannabis?
A: “I want to make clear the distinction of what I’m fighting for. My fight was for medical cannabis. The fight for recreational use was going to be someone else’s fight. That was not something I was going to get involved in. I was not going to support that. I still think as a society, we’re not fully ready for recreational use. But even I’ve softened on that over the years.”
Q: Are you giving up the fight for medical cannabis?
A: I had a guy on social media the other day call me a quitter. I’ve wrestled with that. I’m not sure what my next chapter is. But here’s what I’m sure I will do: I’m going to continue to provide medicine to anybody who reaches out. Anybody who comes to us, we will provide it to them at no cost. I’m going to be actively involved in the governor’s race and advocate for a candidate who will fix this. I will continue to advocate as a private citizen. I’m not going to lobby, but I’m going to advocate and continue to provide medicine for folks and trying to be a voice of reason on this issue as much as I can. I’m not going away from the issue. I just won’t be involved as an elected official.”
Q: What would be your parting words to your colleagues in the General Assembly?
A: “I’m going away but the issue is not going away. They need to come to grips and come up with a solution for medical cannabis. They’re going to have to. They public is going to demand it.”
Q: What do you say to the medical cannabis patients who are still struggling and suffering?
A: “I’m going to continue to help them. It’s been an incredible honor and privilege to fight alongside them. We’ve set up the Peake Family Foundation to help families who have special needs. That’s become our wheelhouse and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we’re going to pivot to.”
Q: Would you ever get involved in the cultivation and distribution of medical cannabis?
A: “That’s a fair question. I have always been upfront that I would never profit off this issue and I’m still committed to that. If I were, it would be providing product to folks who couldn’t afford it or doing it on a benevolence basis. Maybe I could be involved in the industry in some form or fashion but it would be getting product to folks who really need it. I’m never been involved in this to become a licensee. I will not profit off this. If we set up a distribution network it would be so people can get for free.”