Rep. Allen Peake on medical marijuana, growing pot in Georgia, and civil disobedience

Macon state lawmaker: ’The potheads are going to be here whether this bill passes or not. Why not provide good, legal, safe access to those who really do need it and deserve it?’

Last spring, state Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican, was riding high on momentum from the passage of his medical marijuana bill. He almost became Georgia’s House majority leader back in May. When he fell just short, Peake received a nice consolation prize: Gov. Nathan Deal named him one of his floor leaders. But only six months later, Peake abruptly stepped down from his leadership position. The reason? Growing marijuana in Georgia.

House Bill 1, which last year legalized the possession of cannabis oil for people suffering from a limited number of illnesses, does not allow for in-state cultivation. Peake wanted to legalize the growth of marijuana —in a highly regulated manner—so residents could obtain medicine without leaving the state or breaking the law. Though more than 100 state reps back his bill, the governor remains opposed, which led to their split. The lawmaker recently spoke with us about his efforts to legalize in-state cultivation.

Since House Bill 1’s passage last April, are we any closer toward in-state cultivation? What kind of progress has been made?
Well, we knew when we passed “Haleigh’s Hope Act” and got it signed into law, that it was only a first step. Providing protection allowed our medical refugees to come back home, [and it] dealt with the immediate problem that we had of making people flee the state to have legal possession. That’s why the Medical Cannabis Commission was created to look at in-state cultivation. While the commission itself voted against recommending in-state cultivation, four of the five physicians on the panel voted for it. I did as well. I think there’s always been, I believe, an understanding that there needed to be a logical next step and that’s what in-state cultivation is. Now, obviously, that perception may not be shared by everyone. I know the governor’s expressed some concern. My colleagues have expressed some concern about growing it here. Law enforcement has expressed concerns about it. We may still have some paradigms to kind of break down.

This is an issue that started with you advocating on behalf of a single constituent. Over time, it seems like it has become a much larger issue for you. Is it frustrating to see what you believe is a legitimate need for medical marijuana getting bogged down with opposition to recreational marijuana—the whole notion that “Georgia’s not going to become Colorado?” Does it get frustrating that your colleagues—even the governor—can’t seem to separate the two?
Well I understand the concern that my colleagues have about the slippery slope [from medical to recreational marijuana]. They’ve seen other states start with medical and end up with recreational. So I get that. I understand the concerns that law enforcement have as well. There is a clear distinction—a clear line in the sand that I’m committed to. I believe, in the bill, we can establish a commitment to not cross that line to recreational.

How do you do that?
Well, I think you have it regulated by physicians. You involve the pharmacists, which is what we’re doing. You regulate the distribution by having only licensed growers do it so that all three of those—pharmacists, physicians, and licensees—have a stake in it. If they violate the intent of what we’re doing, which is for medicinal purposes, they’re going to suffer for it. That’s how you draw that distinct line [to show] this is clearly for medicinal purposes, not for recreational. You violate that principal, then you’re not just going to suffer financial difficulties, but you’re going to have criminal sanctions at some point as well. That’s how you do it. But, again, some of it’s just an education for the public and for my colleagues as well—to make sure they understand we’re not being used, or I’m not being used, not being a pawn for recreational users down the road. I think that’s how you do it.

It seems like you can just say word “marijuana” and opponents try to associate the drug, whether or not it’s being used for medical purposes, with recreational use. Then pro-pot groups such as Georgia CARE and NORML begin championing your cause, so it seems, to push for wider decriminalization of the drug. How do you navigate fighting for what you believe is a legitimate use of the drug—for medical purposes—while being linked to recreational users?
Well, Rep. [Ed] Setzler talked about it in the [House Judiciary Non-Civil] committee that we need to make sure the [bill’s] words mirror the intent. I agree. We’re drafting legislation that mirrors the intent. I understand these other groups like Georgia CARE and NORML think I’m not going far enough. Or they may think, “Okay, let’s help this, and then we’ll come back to get more later.” Well, they’re going to have to find another champion for the next step. Once I get it done for medicinal purposes, I’m done. My only objective is to be able to provide access to citizens that have a benefit for medicinal purposes. They’re going to have to find another champion. It’s not going to be me.

You recently spoke about engaging in an act of civil disobedience by helping at least one family illegally secure medical marijuana. Could you speak about how it happened?
I won’t talk about the details of that. What I can tell you is we’ve made sure that families who are properly registered with the state have gotten access to medical cannabis when they needed it.

How many families?
I’m not going to tell you that either.

We’ve made sure that those who are properly registered and have needed it, we provided it to them.

Have you heard from law enforcement since you first admitted to doing this?
I’ve chatted with my lawyers. And I’ve just made sure that I wasn’t putting my family and my business at risk. They don’t think I’ve done that. I’ve heard from a very small minority who think I should be in jail, and I should resign. But the overwhelming response has been: “Absolutely, I’d do it for my child as well.”

I don’t want to go to jail. What I do want to do is show the insanity of our current laws that make criminals out of parents and citizens who only want to improve the quality of their life, for their child, or for themselves. And so, from that standpoint, it’s a risk that’s been worth taking.

Your current bill, House Bill 722, includes nine additional conditions that would qualify for medical marijuana use. Is this bill one step toward something bigger? Or will you be satisfied with simply passing what’s in this bill? In other words, what does a fully functional medical marijuana program in Georgia look like to you in the long term?
What we have in House Bill 722 is a good solution. We’re adding medical conditions at this point. Going forward, the conditions per the bill would be added or deleted by the Department of Public Health. We’re leaving it in the hands of medical professionals—taking legislators out of what conditions should be on or off the list. It’s kind of the reasoning behind taking away the cap on the THC limit. Why should we, as legislators, tell a doctor, who knows a whole lot more about it than we do, what’s best for their patient? Shouldn’t we leave that in the decision of the physician?

Do you have concerns—as critics may have—to that becoming the equivalent of a pill mill but with marijuana?
Sure. That’s why the Composite Medical Board is in place. If they see a physician abusing it, then they need to take away his practicing privileges. There are safeguards in place for that. There are software guidelines that are put in place for pill mills to make sure they’re not abused. Maybe at some point we have those same systems in place for medical cannabis as well. I’m all for making sure that this system’s not abused, but we shouldn’t deter hundreds and thousands of people from benefiting just because we’re worried about what the small few might do to abuse it.

Once we have a regulatory structure in place, I don’t think you’ll see me introducing new legislation for medical cannabis other than tweaking the bill. If we have the system in place to add additional medical conditions, if we had the system in place to add additional licensees—which is in the bill—then somebody else is going to have to champion the next step. This will be about as far as I’m going to go.

Right before the session, you announced that you’re no longer going to serve as the governor’s floor leader. Both you and the governor later said it was an amicable decision that was mutually agreed upon. How much of that was related to this bill?
I was grateful to Governor Deal for offering me the opportunity [to stay on as floor leader] after I lost the majority leader race. I could’ve been banished to the back halls of the Capitol. I’m grateful. I support him on 99 percent of initiatives that he’s put forth. We had a difference of opinion of what the next step should be with medical marijuana. This was clearly not part of his agenda. That’s why it was best for me to step aside. He deserves somebody that was 100 percent with his agenda. I’m there 99 percent of the time; on this one, it’s a little different.

At the end of the day, the governor will control whether this bill gets signed and how it’s implemented. He has tremendous influence, obviously, and power in this decision. It behooves me to work with him. I’d be an idiot not to work with him to try and come up with a solution that he can be comfortable with. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.

Given the political opposition, where do you see your effort to pass House Bill 722 going from here?
We still face a tough road ahead of us. Even though up to 84 percent of Georgia citizen support this—most polls show anywhere from 72 to 84 percent—it still is going to face a tough challenge ahead. The governor has expressed concerns that law enforcement officials have expressed to him. That’s going to weigh heavily for him. I think the [Georgia] Senate is going to lean probably heavily on where the governor leans—unless Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle gets involved.

Do you have any indication if that may happen?
I really have tried to meet with him and not been able to do that to see where he leans.

If you had to put a percentage on whether your bill’s going to pass this year, where would you say it’s at right now?
Oh, boy. I would say it’s probably 50-50 at this point.

At the end of the day, this is all about helping our citizens. Whether this bill gets passed or not is not going to stop people in Georgia from trying to find weed to get high. That’s not what this bill is about. This bill is about those who want medical cannabis for medicinal purposes. To those who express concerns that all we’re going to do is create a whole other level of potheads: the potheads are going to be here whether this bill passes or not. Why not provide good, legal, safe access to those who really do need it and deserve it? That’s what we’re going to try to do.