ATLANTA — Even before Georgia lawmakers approved medical marijuana sales this year, the industry was angling to set up shop.
Marijuana companies hired well-connected lobbyists and gave campaign contributions this year to help smooth passage of a bill that allows the drug’s cultivation and distribution.
Those efforts could pay off big for several businesses if they receive one of Georgia’s six licenses to grow medical marijuana.
While it might take a couple of years before marijuana oil sales begin, companies have already lined up for the opportunity to break into a new market. They hired at least 20 lobbyists to shape the medical marijuana legislation before it passed the Georgia General Assembly and was signed by Governor Brian Kemp.
One company, Surterra Wellness, gained an inside track when state House Speaker David Ralston appointed its former president to a marijuana study committee last year. Another business, Trulieve, hired Ralston’s son, Matthew Ralston, as one of its lobbyists. And a Forsyth County company, Compass Neuroceutical, plans to announce a partnership with an unnamed company in hopes it can also get into the marijuana business.
Whichever companies win medical marijuana production licenses from the state will be the only businesses legally allowed to sell the product to Georgia’s growing number of registered patients — about 9,500 so far. Marijuana opponents fear that businesses will push to expand the state’s marijuana program to tens of thousands more patients once they have a legal way to buy medical marijuana oil.
“That’s what we warned about. These people aren’t going to be spending all this money just to set up for however many people are on the cannabis list,” said Jane Robbins of Concerned Women for America, a Christian advocacy organization. “Next year they’ll push a little further, and the year after that they’ll push further, and eventually we’ll end up with recreational marijuana.”
But families of children who use medical marijuana to treat severe seizures said private businesses are essential to providing the medicine they need. Currently, registered patients in Georgia are allowed to use medical marijuana oil for seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and other illnesses, but there’s no way to legally obtain it. The state’s medical marijuana law, first passed in 2015, allows oils that contain up to 5 percent THC, the compound that gives users a high.
“We as patients want medicine as quickly as possible and at the best price possible,” said Shannon Cloud, whose 13-year-old daughter takes medical marijuana oil to treat seizures for Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. “There were a lot of these paid lobbyists fighting for the bill. A lot of people feel this is a bad thing, but we feel it helped us because they had access to legislators that we didn’t.”
Medical marijuana is a multibillion-dollar industry across the country, where 33 other states already have medical marijuana programs. Demand is booming as both medical and recreational marijuana have expanded in recent years. Ten states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
One company, Surterra Wellness, does business in Florida and will consider working in Georgia, spokeswoman Laurie MacKenzie said.
Surterra had 10 registered lobbyists at the state Capitol this year and gave more than $101,000 to various political candidates in Georgia last year, according to campaign finance reports. The company and its employees contributed to Republicans such as Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, gubernatorial candidate Clay Tippins, and state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, as well as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans.
Surterra’s former president, Susan McWhorter Driscoll, served on the Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access last year but didn’t return messages seeking comment.
“We support the efforts in Georgia and across the country to expand access to cannabis in a thoughtful and responsible manner,” MacKenzie said. “As a multistate wellness company, our focus is on meeting the needs of our existing patients and consumers. As we learn more about how the Georgia Legislature will move forward, we will evaluate the opportunity at that time.”
Another company, Trulieve Cannabis, also operates in Florida and employed five lobbyists during this year’s legislative session, including Matthew Ralston. Trulieve recently won a lawsuit over Florida’s limit of 25 dispensaries per operator. A settlement now allows Trulieve to operate 49 dispensaries in Florida.
Representatives for the company didn’t respond to several messages seeking comment.
Compass Neuroceuticals, based in Cumming, worked with families seeking to expand Georgia’s medical marijuana program, said Dr. Scott Cooper, a neurologist who helped form the company. Compass employed five lobbyists this year, and Cooper contributed $1,000 last year to former Republican candidate for governor Michael Williams.
Compass is near finalizing a deal with a “major partner” to pursue medical marijuana business in Georgia, Cooper said.
“We were trying with our lobbyists to No. 1, get the bill passed, and No. 2, get something passed that was going to have proper supervision and oversight, and also have ease of acquisition for patients and their families,” Cooper said.
Under the legislation, House Bill 324, a seven-member board called the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission will be responsible for overseeing the state’s medical marijuana program. The commission will be appointed by Kemp, Duncan, and Ralston. Then it will create regulations and consider licensing requirements for up to six private companies to grow medical marijuana.
The law allows two licenses for 100,000 square feet of indoor cultivation space each and four licences for 50,000 square feet of cultivation space each — a total of about 9 acres. Then an unspecified number of pharmacies or retail outlets will be allowed to sell medical marijuana oil to registered patients.
Mark Niesse writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.