ATLANTA – Proponents of the use of medical cannabis anxiously await word on a federal agency’s decision on how to classify marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said earlier this year that it may loosen restrictions on marijuana, although its self-imposed June 30 deadline for a decision has come and gone.

Sebastien Cotte, an advocate for medical marijuana, said a relaxed classification could help Georgia patients now eligible to use certain forms of the drug, though he's not hopeful.

Georgia is one year into a medical cannabis program that allows patients with a qualifying condition to possess oil with low levels of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis.

It remains illegal to ship or transport it here, however.

“I can legally have it in Georgia. I just cannot legally buy it,” said Cotte, whose 5-year-old son uses the oil. “So I have to be very inventive.”

Cotte said marijuana would have to be treated like alcohol or tobacco – and completely descheduled by the DEA – in order for there to be any real benefit to Georgians.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think anything that happens is going to help us,” he said.

Cotte’s son has a rare mitochondrial disease, which is one of the eight conditions eligible for the treatment. Others are multiple sclerosis, cancer, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell, sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and seizure disorders.

Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, which means the federal government deems it to have no medicinal value. It’s grouped in that category with heroin.

Bumping it down to a Schedule II – a more conservative move – would allow for more research and empower doctors to write prescriptions. Now Georgia physicians can only recommend medical cannabis to patients.

Even then, it could still be years before a new classification translates into patients obtaining cannabis-based products.

“It really wouldn’t mean a whole heck of a lot,” said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who sponsored the 2015 measure that started Georgia’s program.

A rescheduling could, however, help spur action next legislative session, Peake said.

Peake pushed unsuccessfully this past session to allow growth of medical cannabis in Georgia, and to add more qualifying conditions, making more patients eligible to use it.

He said he’s hopeful the DEA will be swayed by a long list of states that allow some form of medical cannabis.

Georgia is one of 17 that have approved extracts with low levels of THC. About two dozen states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have broader programs.

“Maybe that’s enough momentum to go, ‘Hey, guys, there’s clearly medicinal value, and it needs to be rescheduled,’” he said.

More than 800 patients have signed up for a state registry to qualify for cannabis-based treatment.

Nearly half use the oil to treat seizures. About one in five are cancer patients.

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. 

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