During a press conference, several Northwest Georgia sheriffs, including Gordon County Sheriff Mitch Ralston, agreed that the Georgia House is “rushing” to pass a bill that would allow for manufacturing of cannabis for production of low-level THC oil. House representatives say the bill is far from complete.

On Monday, a press conference was held at the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office in Ringgold, where the sheriffs from several different Northwest Georgia counties gathered to express their concerns regarding House Bill 324. The counties represented included Gordon, Catoosa, Walker, Whitfield, Dade and Chattooga counties. The bill passed the House on Tuesday with a 123-40 vote, and is now being considered by the Senate.

A news release announcing the conference stated that the sheriffs had common concerns with “the way the bill is being rushed through with many unanswered questions about regulation, oversight and convicted felons having ownership and/or employed, and unfunded regulation.”

HB 324, sponsored by Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, has been in the works for about a year and it would legalize the production, manufacturing and dispensing of low-level THC oil in the state, strictly for the purpose of aiding individuals with severe seizure disorders.

The sheriffs’ take

At the press conference, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk represented the others in sharing their position on HB 324, which was strictly against the bill’s approval.

“You can tell there really hasn’t been much thought or collaboration with law enforcement officers when they were writing the bill,” Sisk said. “We have no idea why there’s been a rush.”

Some of the sheriffs’ concerns stemmed from the opinion that the passing of this bill would be a gateway for legalizing recreational marijuana. They didn’t like the term “unlimited,” which is present in the bill with regards for growing cannabis and hemp products, or the potential for felons to be included in the manufacturing process that wasn’t addressed in the bill’s first drafts.

Central in their argument was that only around 8,000 patients in the state are currently registered to buy THC oil for serious medical issues through the Low THC Oil Patient Registry. and that according to the HB 324, the licenses that would be extended must be given to only five companies that would invest $10 million as an investment and $5 million for a nonrefundable bond.

“Why would companies do that for a little over 8,000 customers?” Sisk said. “Do you think their investment is worth that? No, because they’re planning on going a lot further than that. We’re changing the law for a little over 8,000 people?”

There are currently almost 10.5 million people living in the state of Georgia.

Sisk also expressed concerns for the first five licenses and asked why it should be “unlimited” for a little over 8,000 customers.

When a Channel 3 reporter asked Sisk if he had $10 million, would he spend it to save 500 people in his county, hypothetically, Sisk responded by saying, “If I had $10 million I could buy them a home in Colorado and say go there and enjoy it.”

“What company that’s working for a profit is going to do that,” Sisk said, referring to spending a minimum of $15 million on a little over 8,000 customers. “The drug cartel could meet that.”

On behalf of the other sheriffs, Sisk also pointed at the example of Colorado. Sisk said Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis recommended other states that were looking at bills regarding cannabis and hemp to take time in examining the issue and glean perspective from the actions of Colorado and others which have passed legalization.

Another concern expressed by the sheriffs included the part of the bill that gives access to the GBI and Department of Public Health to monitor the manufacturing process, but excludes local law enforcement officers to regulate production and distributing.

“There’s nothing about who’s going to fund the extra agents it’s going to require from the GBI,” Sisk said. “It always falls back to the local level. Why have they went about it the way they have to circumvent so many things that are already in place?”

Gordon County Sheriff Mitch Ralston said he thought the conference went great.

“I’m sure this is still going to pass but we want to voice our concerns to the public,” Ralston said. “I think there’s too many unanswered questions. They’re trying to rush through this for a reason and it’s just raising a lot of concerns in law enforcement.”

Ralston said he along with other sheriffs at the conference wanted to educate the public on what the passing of this bill could mean for Georgia’s future. They encourage the public to contact their state representatives and senators in order to speak their mind.

Representatives speak up

“Last year about this time, the Study Committee met several times throughout the summer and fall, looking at other states and studying the effects of THC oil,” Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, said when asked about the legislation.

The key he thinks a lot of people forget about is that while this bill would allow growing cannabis and hemp within state limits, it’s only going to be used for low-level THC oil with minute amounts of the plant. and though it’s become a controversial issue among local sheriffs, Jasperse said there hasn’t been a rush, that the Study Committee is giving everyone the opportunity to say what they need to say and amend the bill.

In fact, during his consideration of the bill, Jasperse proposed an amendment that prohibited felons convicted on drug-related charges from participating in the manufacturing process in any way.

“There are Georgians who are suffering and we’re trying to take care of them,” Jasperse said. “But this bill is far from being done.”

Jasperse said the “beauty of the legislature” is that nothing can be rushed, it just isn’t possible. Everyone needs to contribute their input, amendments need to be made, and if it’s still not what they want by the end of the session, they can still vote against it.

He also said from what he knows, the House isn’t interested in legalizing recreational marijuana in the state.

While he offered a different perspective on HB 324 than the sheriffs, he said he always respects local enforcement officers who are daily on the front line of fighting drug use and trafficking.

Rep. Matt Barton, R-Calhoun, said with regards to the bill, he had had many conversations with Ralston, who he knows very well. And though he hears and understands the worries of Ralston, since he’s been in office for almost a month now, he does understand how much work Gravley, the bill’s sponsor, has put into HB 324.

Barton has seen videos of how THC oil is effective, especially for children with serious seizure disorders, and he knows Gravley has done his research to make the bill effective.

“It would cost $150 a bottle, so it would be very expensive, and the bill is very strict,” Barton said. “I do see a lot of positives.”

During his conversations with Ralston, Barton said he tried to explain the other side of the coin, yet the Gordon County sheriff was still passionately against HB 324. Barton did say that though he understands a bit more of the background behind the bill, he still did vote against it. Jasperse voted in favor of the bill.

A parent’s opinion

Sheli Gilley has a daughter with special needs. Before Zoe Gilley, 12, started taking cannabis oil to help with her seizures, she experienced 75-100 seizures a day, which varied in length. Zoe was also in a comatose state for about three weeks before taking the oil.

After, the number is down to 10 seizures a day on average, each one lasting only seconds.

Gilley, who lives in Dalton with her family, said she’s read HB 324 and according to her, the sheriffs got a few things wrong at their press conference.

“What they said was just not true, it was misleading. The facts are in the bill,” Gilley said, who has been fighting for a bill like this for the past four years.

Local sheriffs and legislators alike encourage constituents to contact elected state representatives, as well as state senators, to express their concerns, opinions and ideas. To converse with Gordon County representatives, contact Jasperse at 404-656-1753 and Barton at 404-656-0325. To contact Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, call his office at 404-656-0034.