The four Republican candidates for the Georgia Senate seat previously held by the late Sen. Jack Hill expressed a range of opinions Tuesday evening about expansion of hemp cultivation and production of cannabis products. But all approved of at least “medical marijuana.”
Two candidates stated that they personally use hemp-derived products for health or wellness purposes, and a third indicated he has patients who have used medical cannabis with excellent results.
The question came near the end of the 90-minute forum livestreamed by the Bulloch County Republican Party and the online media organization AllOnGeorgia.com on their Facebook pages, where it remains archived. But their responses illustrate the differing approaches of these candidates: an attorney who recently retired as a judge, a certified public accountant, a family-practice physician and a former soldier and police officer.
“Do you support medical marijuana? What is your position on marijuana in the state of Georgia? Is it inevitable?” was the core of the question posed by All On Georgia’s Jessica Szilagyi.
She had noted that the state government has loosened restrictions on “medical marijuana,” especially on CBD oil with low THC content, incrementally since 2015.
The question went first to Kathy Palmer, the Swainsboro attorney who served 20 years as a Superior Court judge in the Middle Judicial Circuit. Previously planning to retire as judge at the end of 2020, she stepped down April 13 to seek the District 4 Senate seat in the special election, which coincides with the June 9 primaries.
“The medical research seems to prove that the medical marijuana does have an impact that is very helpful to a number of patients with specific diseases and disorders, and I would support that medical marijuana,” Palmer said. “Now, the issue with the bill that has allowed the low-THC hemp to be grown is it has complicated the ability of prosecuting attorneys to actually prosecute those who are illegally selling marijuana.”
Testing procedures to distinguish this hemp from marijuana that is more potent in THC need to be refined and made affordably available to those prosecutors, she said. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the cannabinoid chemical largely responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating effects, while cannabidiol , or CBD, is a separate component chemical said not to produce these effects.
“We’re right now in a little bit of a dilemma on this THC thing, so I think we need to perhaps take a step back and look at getting it right,” Palmer said. “Now, I’m fine with that medical use of the marijuana under those strict guidelines, and maybe we can pass legislation that handles that.”
House Bill 324, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law in April 2019, launched a program to improve access to medical cannabis in Georgia. Previous legislation had established a registry that made people with certain conditions eligible to use medical cannabis products but did not provide for legal in-state production or distribution.
When the question went to candidate Billy Hickman, he said the governor had recently named a commissioner to handle the issue. Actually, Kemp appointed the members of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission last year, and that panel recently appointed its first executive director, Andrew Turnage.
On some other issues, Hickman, a certified public accountant for 45 years in the Statesboro firm Dabbs, Hickman, Hill & Cannon, emphasized his financial expertise. But on this, he cited personal rather than professional experience.
“Personally, I take every night a hemp extract,” Hickman said. “I buy it from our pharmacist … and it’s a common-type thing. It really does help me sleep at night. So, I’m not familiar with the medical side of it; I know that I hear people talk about it and I understand the benefits of it – there are benefits of it – and I think it probably needs to be tested more.
“But I do believe in the person that Governor Kemp has appointed to review the situation, and knowing the way our governor is that this will be handled in a very good manner,” Hickman concluded.
Dr. Scott Bohlke has been treating patients at a family practice in Brooklet for 21 years now. That makes him a small-business owner, with 10 employees, he noted. He previously served in the U.S. Air Force for four years as a physician and officer.
”I support this,” Bohlke said in response to the “medical marijuana” question, and noted that he has “a handful of patients” that are on the registry and using the approved product right now.
“I have one patient that’s completely come off narcotics because of this medicine,” Bohlke said. “We have an opioid crisis, and what a better way to attempt to alleviate that crisis by giving them something else that helps cover their pain.
“From the medical perspective, we have what they call an endocannabinoid system in our bodies, naturally right now, it occurs in every one of us, and what that marijuana with the cannabinoid is doing is tapping into that system to alleviate the pain,” he continued. “I do hope that it could be regulated. I personally would love to be able to prescribe it, regulated as a controlled substance like every other medicine.”
Neil Singleton, an Army veteran and former law enforcement officer who resides near Collins in Tattnall County, described himself Tuesday as the candidate who does not “have a judge title or a CPA or a doctor title.” He also said he takes CBD three times a day for some nerve issues and a past injury.
“I think we need to really separate marijuana from hemp. …,” Singleton said. “But I am 100 percent for expanding hemp crops, and I want to do it now. Hemp, you get a 0.3 percent THC level from it, and that’s what you see in all the oils and stuff like that that people take. It’s profitable, and the problem in Georgia right now is we only have four processors. … Georgia puts so much red tape on it that it’s almost impossible to afford.”
He called for abolishing the state’s fee on hemp farmers – $50 an acre, up to a $5,000 annual maximum – and the still higher fees and restrictions on processors.
“Let the farmers who want to farm it farm it; let the processors who can process it safely, and up to a certain standard, process it. …,” Singleton said.
“I am for marijuana, I am for deregulation of simple possession of marijuana,” he said. “We clog our courts; we clog our jails.”
But he clarified that he meant only to decriminalize possession of less than one ounce and then added that he supports expansion of marijuana’s availability in Georgia as “a ballot issue.”
“I’ll support it, but it has to go on a ballot, has to go to the citizens, let the citizens decide it, not us,” Singleton said.
Candidates also responded to questions about the enacted but court-challenged “Heartbeat Bill” and their opposition to abortion, about their support for the 2nd Amendment and about the possibility of casino gambling in Georgia.
The Statesboro Herald will publish another story about what each candidate identified as the most important issues. Early voting is now underway for the June 9 election.