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Austell Police Chief and Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission member Bob Starrett listens to Michael Mayes, CEO of Chicago-based Quantum 9 Cannabis Consulting.

The group tasked with figuring out how to distribute medical marijuana in Georgia gathered in Austell on Saturday for its third meeting.

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission came into being last year when Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s Hope Act into law. The job of its seven members is to consider and approve applications for companies to grow and sell medical marijuana in the Peach state.

They have the authority to approve up to six private growers to cultivate medical cannabis. Since 2015, medical cannabis has been legal in Georgia for patients who carry a special registry card, but it was the Georgia’s Hope Act that paved the way for a legal distribution network. Under it, card-carrying patients and caregivers will be able to purchase the medicine from licensed pharmacies.

Recreational marijuana use remains illegal in Georgia. Only those who suffer from one of a specific list of ailments or their caregivers can qualify to possess an oil that contains up to 5% of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

According to the commission, over 15,000 medical marijuana patients were registered in Georgia by the end of 2019.

The commission holds monthly meetings in rotating locations across the state. February’s meeting was a short commute for one commissioner, Austell Police Chief Bob Starrett, who was appointed by House Speaker David Ralston in November.

The other members were appointed by Gov. Kemp and Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan and include medical professionals, professors and business owners.

February’s meeting consisted primarily of presentations from medical cannabis consultants who hope to advise the commission and patient safety groups with suggestions for the commissioners.

Michael Mayes, CEO of Chicago-based Quantum 9 Cannabis Consulting, said his company can help the state in every step of the process, including dealing with lawsuits from growers who are not approved, which he said are essentially inevitable.

“Unfortunately, after the licenses are awarded, in every single market, there will be lawsuits against the state and the commission, so there’s definitely ways to protect against that, and we can lend credence to that,” he said.

Mayes said his No. 1 piece of advice to the commission to avoid legal entanglements after the fact is to award its contracts on a merit-based system with third-party judges who score the candidates without knowing which company they are grading.

Mayes was the only consultant who offered his company’s services pro-bono. Quantum 9’s business model involves helping governments set up their programs and then charging firms to navigate those programs.

Boston-based cannabis industry consultant Charles Smith also said a merit-based system is the way to go.

“And to the extent that that can be shared with applicants before they apply as part of the application process, I think is very valuable,” he said. “We’ve seen some states where the rubric itself was not made public until after the fact and after the applications were submitted. I think that can be very problematic.”

Illinois State Rep. Bob Morgan, first director of the Illinois Medical Cannabis program, said his state used a merit-based system and faced three or four lawsuits following its implementation of medical cannabis, though none were successful.

“They were either dismissed or the individual who applied withdrew their own lawsuit,” he said. “We did not lose any. There were a couple different allegations. … It’s usually because they attack the process and the scoring. If somebody gets 45.4 points and somebody gets 45.2, the 45.2 points applicant is going to look at their application, they’re certain they had the better application, and they’re going to make a decision of whether to sue.”

Speaking after the meeting, Chief Starrett said the commission will consider bringing on the consultants.

“That’s a decision we’ve got to make, which ones we want to use,” he said. “One of them offered his time pro bono, the other two want to charge fees for it, so we’ve got to decide which ones we want to use at what times and see how that goes.”

Following the consultants’ pitches, a series of patient safety advocates took the mic to push for their own particular causes.

Dr. Kelly Degraffenreid of the Medical Association of Georgia said it ought to be up to doctors and patients to decide whether cannabis is the right treatment.

Emory neuropharmacology professor Michael Kuhar and members of anti-marijuana abuse program Let’s Get Clear Georgia both warned against medical marijuana expansion, saying there is not enough evidence to support it.

Representatives of Veterans for Cannabis spoke about the role that medicine can play in fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Marion McNabb of the Massachusetts-based Cannabis Community Care and Research Network recommended the commission push for programs that promote social justice, for example by ensuring access for marginalized groups and veterans.

Starrett said the commission is also searching for an executive director.

“We have a company that’s just come out with a recommendation for an application process,” he said. “I had prepared a list of qualifications I submitted to the company. They took that and also put together what they felt like we would be looking for. Hopefully we can get that approved and get that out, I would like by the next meeting to have some recommendations for an executive director and go ahead and try to get that in place as quick as we can.”

Starrett said once the members choose a grower, it will likely be nine months before the medical cannabis can be grown, cultivated, tested and put on the market.

He said he and the other commissioners are working to get this medicine in the hands of those who need it as quickly as can be done safely.

“I know that it seems like a slow process to the public,” he said. “I think the original bill allowing you to possess THC was in 2015. It’s been quite some time, a few months since this bill has passed. It seems like a slow process, but we’re working as quick as we can within our guidelines.”

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