Over the span of her life, Zoe Gilley, 12, has been on over 20 seizure medications, but according to her mother, each one has failed at controlling the 75-100 seizures she would get in one day, with each one varying in length.

It wasn’t until Zoe Gilley started taking cannabis oil that her symptoms lessened, and her seizures are now down to 10 a day on average, with each of them lasting seconds.

“Without the side effects from seizure medications,” Sheli Gilley, Zoe’s mother, said, “there has been remarkable improvement in her cognitive and physical abilities.”

Sheli Gilley, a Dalton resident, said cannabis oil is the only type of medication that significantly helps Zoe, who has Lennox Gastaut Syndrome and CDKL5. Zoe Gilley has struggled with comas and seizures since the day she was six weeks old.

Sheli Gilley, said Zoe was in status epilepsy and a comatose state for almost three weeks because she lacked proper medication. So when House Bill 1 passed in 2015, allowing registered patients to possess low-level THC oil, Sheli Gilley found hope for her daughter through the future of legalized medical cannabis in Georgia.

Since HB 1 didn’t address manufacturing and distribution of cannabis oil, however, Sheli and Zoe Gilley have both been waiting for four years for access to low-level THC oil.

Under the 2015 bill, the possession of low-level THC oil under certain circumstances was made legal for those on the Low THC Oil Patient Registry, which included those with cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell disease.

Yet in spite of the 2015 bill’s attempt to help those with severe medical issues, not providing a way to access low THC oil in the state prevented those in need from getting proper medication.

Because of this lack of Georgian production of cannabis for medical purposes, patients on the registry could only buy the oil in other states where it was legal, but they couldn’t carry it across state lines legally.

This presented a problem for the Gilley family, who has struggled through medications that have failed to lessen Zoe Gilley’s seizures and comas.

HB 324, which passed the Georgia House last week, addresses the worries of concerned parents and individuals who need low-level THC oil. If approved by the Senate and Gov. Brian Kemp, this bill would allow for the production, manufacturing and distribution of THC oil in Georgia, specifically and strictly for patients on the registry.

It would address the needs of patients with the diseases or symptoms listed above, and it would also provide a way to legally access the cannabis oil within the state.

HB 324 is the bill the Gilleys have been waiting for, so when Northwest Georgia sheriffs spoke at a press conference in Ringgold last week, proposing their strong opposition to the bill, Sheli Gilley quickly became upset. She grew even more frustrated when she heard what the sheriffs said during the conference, expressing how she had thoroughly read HB 324 and how she thought they got some things wrong.

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

The press conference

On Mar. 4, 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 HB 324. The counties represented included Catoosa, Walker, Whitfield, Dade, Chattooga and Gordon.

The press 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.”

In a brief conversation with a Channel 3 reporter during the conference, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk – who spoke on behalf of the other sheriffs at the conference — questioned the bill and state representatives from Northwest Georgia that supported it.

In response to Sisk, Sheli Gilley said she didn’t quite understand how the sheriffs think the bill is being rushed, as she and other parents have been waiting for HB 324 for years.

“There was a study committee last fall specifically to get input on this and figure out whether it was necessary and how to move forward,” Sheli Gilley said. “Many sheriffs did participate in that process, so this bill is certainly not a surprise.”

According to Sheli Gilley, patients on the registry list are dying. She doesn’t understand why there’s so much pushback over something that’s already taken so long.

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, confirmed that about this time last year, a study committee met several times throughout the summer and fall, looking at other states and studying the effects of THC oil, working on this bill since the summer.

Yet, sheriffs said representatives hadn’t conferred with local law enforcement officers before trying to push the bill along.

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

Another point Sisk made on behalf of the other sheriffs was a concern for the term “unlimited,” which is present in the bill with regards for growing cannabis and hemp products. According to HB 324, Class 1 licensees may produce unlimited cannabis and hemp products, but only specifically to be distributed to those on the patient registry.

The sheriffs were concerned that only the GBI would be monitoring and enforcing the production process, which is stated in the bill, and that no local government input would be allowed or permitted as far as keeping production strictly medicinal. The sheriffs at the conference, including Gordon County Sheriff Mitch Ralston, were ultimately concerned that this bill would be a gateway for the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Licensees

Sisk also asked the rhetorical question of why large companies would invest up to $15 million for over 8,000 patients who are currently registered to possess low-level THC oil in the state. In the conference, Sisk said even if that number was doubled, or tripled, he wouldn’t understand how that much money would be invested to help only thousands of people from a business standpoint if it wouldn’t lead to more business (for example, the legalization of recreational cannabis).

The bill itself says a Class 1 production license, which would only be distributed to five applicants at a maximum, would require that the applicant provide proof that they hold at least $10 million in available cash reserves. They would also need to prove that a $5 million cash bond payable to the state could be obtained within 30 days of the license award.

The bill does not outright say the applicant must invest $15 million, simply that they must prove they have $15 million to invest.

HB 324 says that there would be five licenses awarded to Class 1 applicants and five to Class 2 applicants.

Class 1 licensees would have the ability to produce unlimited amounts of cannabis or hemp products only for producing low-level THC oil. Class 2 licensees would be able to grow such products for THC oil, but would be limited to 20,000 square feet of cultivation space.

Each of the ten licensees would be able to set up six dispensaries across the state, which would provide 60 retail locations for registry patients.

According to Sheli Gilley, with only 60 dispensaries, there would still be over 100 counties in the state that don’t have a location for patients to obtain their medicine. and adding on to that, Gilley said home delivery is necessary for some patients who can’t get out of their house or drive.

Jasperse said on Monday he wasn’t even sure if ten licensees would be kept in the bill after being reviewed by the Senate, saying that the number might decrease.

“My worry is that we have too many growers and not enough licenses,” Jasperse said, wishing to remind citizens that HB 324 is still a long way off from being in effect.

In summary

Northwest Georgia sheriffs are still strictly against the approval of the bill. Sisk asked who would even invest that much money (up to $15 million, per his records) for a little over 8,000 Georgians on the registry list. He said the “drug cartel could meet that,” and expressed concern for Georgia becoming like the state of Colorado, which is known for its legalization of recreational marijuana.

Jasperse, who said he thinks the law is very tight as it is, said he has been involved with this bill since the beginning due to his membership on the House Health Committee. He sees positives and negatives, and overall he said he and other legislators want to help struggling Georgians.

Sheli Gilley said her frustration roots from trying to protect and help her daughter. Sheli Gilley has been trying to get the medicine Zoe needs, and this bill would be a great way to provide accessibility for Zoe and others like her. Sheli Gilley also said she thinks the law is already extremely strict.

The bill restricts the amount of low-level THC oil allowed by a patient on the registry (20 fluid ounces), and if a person possesses 20 fluid ounces without a registration card, possesses more than 20 fluid ounces or manufactures and distributes the oil without a license shall be punished with charges ranging from misdemeanor to felony.

“We need sheriffs to focus on enforcing the laws, not trying to make the laws,” Sheli Gilley said.