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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

The next stage of medical marijuana debate: Civil disobedience

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081015 DALLAS: After battling for years to help treat his daughter, Sydney, who suffers from intractable seizures and uses cannabis oil as a treatment, J-Bo Wages finally holds his State of Georgia low THC oil registration card on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, in Dallas. The Wages were among the very first to receive permission from the state to use low-dose cannabis oil without fear of prosecution. More than 100 patients qualified for Georgia’s new medical marijuana registry in its first 45 days of business. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

A Georgia low THC oil registration card, issued late last year. The card gives the holder permission from to use low-dose cannabis oil without fear of prosecution. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

The next phase in the state Capitol fight over medicinal marijuana could involve handcuffs and law-breaking.

Principled law-breaking, but law-breaking nonetheless. In fact, it already has.

Last spring, when Gov. Nathan Deal signed Haleigh’s Hope Act into law, you might have assumed that Georgia’s fight over the use of cannabis oil to treat seizures and other conditions was over.

The new law gives limited protection to those who use or administer the substance. But possession of marijuana in any form remains a violation of federal law, as does transporting it across state lines – and into Georgia.

To address this last point, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has introduced House Bill 722. The measure would expand the number of diseases and conditions for which cannabis oil could be prescribed, which alone has inflamed prosecuting attorneys.

Allen Peake, R-Macon, arguing last year for H.B. 1, the medical marijuana bill. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

Allen Peake, R-Macon, arguing last year for H.B. 1, the medical marijuana bill. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

But the bill also calls for “a minimum of two and a maximum of six in-state manufacturers for the production of all medical cannabis within the state by Dec. 1, 2016.” The idea is to eliminate the risk that parents and other caregivers run of becoming felons.

Peake’s bill already bears the signatures of more than 100 House members. It has Speaker David Ralston’s blessing. But resistance in the Senate is certain. The governor has made his opposition clear, lining up with those who think H.B. 722 would be a slippery slope written into law.

A stalemate is in the works.

Impasses often produce alternative tactics to change the dynamics of a situation. This may be where the medicinal marijuana debate is headed – toward a period of civil disobedience. i.e., deliberate violation of the law to make a political point. Allen Peake has already been there, at least once.

The state lawmaker has danced around the topic in the past when discussing his frequent trips to Colorado, where cannabis is legal, to visit Georgians who have been forced to move there in order to stay within the boundaries of the law.

In an interview this week, Peake went public.

“Listen, I made a commitment to these families when I got involved, that I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure they had access to a product from a reputable manufacturer. I’ve made good on that promise. If it involved civil disobedience, it’s been absolutely worth it,” Peake said. He paused to consider his next thought, then continued.

“I got a text this morning from the mother of a young child who I delivered product to,” he said.

“We’re on the record,” I reminded him. Peake didn’t miss a beat.

“And the heartfelt thanks from this mother, the difference in this child – the increase in cognitive ability, the reduction in seizures, has been worth every bit of risk that I’ve taken,” he said.

This isn’t grand jury material. Peake offered no dates, times, or names. But what he described could be considered a felony in the eyes of federal, even local prosecutors.

Up I-85, in Jackson County, Mike Buffington has spent the last 15 years dealing with his son’s seizures. He, too, is frustrated by what he sees as obstructionism in the state Capitol when it comes to medicinal marijuana.

Buffington is the co-publisher of a small chain of weeklies along the interstate corridor, and is editor of the Jackson County Herald. He considers himself conservative. He is a past president of the local Rotary Club. Earlier this month, he wrote a column with this headline: “I’m growing marijuana.”

Wrote Buffington: “If there is an evil plant, it’s kudzu, not marijuana. I think we should outlaw kudzu and arrest anyone who has it growing on his property.

“My pot plant is really something of a civic protest against absurd state policies that prevent children who suffer from seizure disorders from getting help.”

We talked on Tuesday. Actually, Buffington hadn’t followed through on his threat. Not yet. He had decided he was going to do it right, and wanted a variety of marijuana that was low in intoxicating properties and high in the substance believed to address seizures.

“I had to find the seeds out of Europe. They were shipped here and came in today,” Buffington said. “I’m going to plant the seed tonight and hook the grow light up.”

His plan is to post photos of the plant as it buds and grows. It isn’t a sure thing. He lacks a green thumb, but is getting plenty of advice.

Buffington hasn’t yet heard from law enforcement. “I think people recognize that growing one plant as a protest is vastly different than growing 500 plants for harvesting, manufacturing and distribution,” the editor and publisher said. “I’m making a political statement, but I’m trying to show that it’s just a plant. If it has the potential to help people, why not open the door and see what we can do with it?”

Nor has Buffington sought legal advice. “Obviously, if you’re going to do civil disobedience, you know what the penalties potentially are, and you’ve got to be willing to take those penalties,” he said. “It’s less than an ounce, so that’s a misdemeanor. If they say you’re cultivating for distribution, that’s a felony. I think I would take my chances before a jury on a felony charge.”

A first hearing on H.B. 722 will be held Monday. Buffington may be one of the witnesses. Others are contemplating going public with their defiance of current state law, but Buffington is in a more comfortable position. His disabled son is 21 years old.

Some of the most passionate supporters of the bill are parents of younger children. Who worry that a public confession of law-breaking might put the state Division of Family and Children Services on their doorsteps.

After I spoke to Peake and Buffington, I conferred with Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. The question was obvious.

“At what point are we going to start prosecuting them?” he said. “I don’t have the answer to that.”