After a 12-hour day on Tuesday, Georgia lawmakers concluded a legislative session that has caught the attention of the entire state. One bill passed by the General Assembly permitted medicinal marijuana production within state borders.
After much debate and several amendments, legislators approved House Bill 324 on Sine Die, ending the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly, and sending the bill to Gov. Brian Kemp. The House passed the bill 147-16, and the Senate approved it 34-20.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, has been in the works for about a year and 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.
Kemp now has 40 days to decide to sign the bill or veto it, and according to Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, legislators estimate the governor will approve the legislation. In fact, Kemp was even involved in getting the House and the Senate to agree on a version of the bill at the end of the session.
"I think this helps people that nothing else helps," said Jasperse, who voted yes on the bill after he was able to add language restricting the involvement of drug felons in the production process.
Rep. Matt Barton, R-Calhoun, first voted no on the bill in March prior to Crossover Day, but voted yes to HB 324 after amendments were made and Kemp had gotten involved in the negotiation process. Barton said this issue is a personal one for him, and he didn't want to vote for a something that could eventually permit recreational marijuana in the state.
Yet, Barton said with new restrictions added, he felt more comfortable that medicinal cannabis would be permitted only for those who truly needed it.
"If you add up all the acreage and square footage, around 9 acres is all the cultivating that can be done in Georgia," Barton said, reflecting on the new limit to space and amount of cannabis that can be produced per the proposed law's wording.
Barton also said pharmacies and universities would now be involved in the process, monitoring the patient list, recipients of low-level THC oil and issuing dispensing licenses to other retail outlets.
In the original House-approved bill, five Class 1 license recipients were to be permitted "unlimited amounts of cannabis or hemp products" to produce THC oil; five Class 2 licensees were also to be permitted 20,000 square feet. Yet, in the new version, two Class 1 licensees will be limited to 100,000 square feet and four Class 2 license recipients will be allowed 50,000 square feet of cultivation space.
Local sheriffs' take
During a March 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.
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.
Since then, sheriffs and local citizens have been in contact with legislators, and have worked to get the bill amended. Although the GBI will still be solely responsible for enforcement, Ralston said on Wednesday the proper amendments were made to satisfy the sheriffs' requests. He added that the sheriffs' first priority was always Georgia's children and what was best for them.
"I guess they worked it out," Ralston said. "Once it got through the Senate, they made the necessary changes and addressed our concerns. The sheriffs are neutral on the bill."
From a parent's perspective, the passing and Kemp's support of the bill is a blessing.
Sheli Gilley, a Dalton resident, said cannabis oil is the only type of medication that significantly helps her daughter Zoe, who has Lennox Gastaut Syndrome and CDKL5. Zoe Gilley has struggled with comas and seizures since the day she was six weeks old.
A 2015 bill, also known as "Haleigh's Hope," made possession of low-level THC oil in Georgia under certain circumstances legal for those on the Low THC Oil Patient Registry. The registry includes 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 attempts by the passing of "Haleigh's Hope" to help those with severe medical issues, not providing a way to access low THC oil in Georgia prevented those in need from getting proper medication. 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.
HB 324 is the bill the Gilleys have been waiting for. 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.
Another parent, Evan Ross, of Floyd County, said the bill is a step in the right direction. Ross has a 5-year-old son with epilepsy and has seen how cannabis oil has reduced his son's amount of seizures, as well as lessened other symptoms.
Yet Ross offers two separate perspectives. Since he ran for the Georgia Senate District 52 seat this fall against Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, and managed his own campaign, researching obstacles Georgia faces, Ross has a history of in-depth engagement in the political arena. Legalizing medicinal marijuana was a central platforms for his 2018 campaign.
Though he lost to Hufstetler in November's election, Ross said he still addresses HB 324 from two aspects: from that of a parent and that of a citizen.
As a parent, he's glad it's going to make it easier for his son to access the medicine he needs. Ross, like most parents, said he would do anything for his son, and HB 324 will help his entire family. Yet, as a citizen, he thinks the bill will only benefit large corporations.
"From a farmer's perspective, from an economic perspective, it's not going to be good," Ross said after the bill was passed by the House. "It provides monopoly, only a small amount of rich people can do it in the whole state."
Ross works for a small farm whose owners are interested in growing cannabis for low-level THC oil, but HB 324's listed price of a obtaining a license for Class 1 is around $225,000, and that's without the annual renewal and production fees (which are estimated to be in the millions).
Ross recognizes that HB 324 is better than nothing, though, commenting that by not having medicinal marijuana production legal, it hurts the poor the most. Even if a low-income family has a child or adult on the registry, before HB 324, there was no way to legally access cannabis oil without additional resources or financial support.
So while Ross sees the bill as problematic in some ways, he also said it's a start, as it will begin the process of helping his son and others in the same situation.
"It's not a good bill, but it will help people," Ross said.
Calhoun High School's performing arts program was nominated for 10 Shuler awards following their production of "Peter Pan: The Musical," including notable student nominations.
The Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards-Shuler Hensley Awards were founded to mimic Broadway's Tony Awards, but specifically for high school theater performances. The awards are named in honor of actor, singer and Georgia native Shuler Hensley and are open to all high schools in the state.
While this award show is highly competitive and has brought many schools' drama departments into the spotlight, this isn't Calhoun's first time being nominated.
In the past, Calhoun High has received nominations for previous productions of "Bring It On: The Musical," "Hello Dolly," "Sweeney Todd" and "Oklahoma!"
This is, however, Calhoun's first time having four student nominations, which were awarded to Riley Anderson for music direction, Kathryn Stockman for choreography, Ryleigh Roberts Ledford for best performance by a leading actress and Matthew McCanless for best performance by a supporting actor.
And not only were four students chosen as nominees, but so were high school staff members – Julie Leggett for direction, Darlene Wright for music direction and India Galyean for lighting design.
"It feels like everything we did paid off," said Anderson regarding the nominations the production received. Anderson helped Wright with music direction and ended up receiving a nomination alongside Wright even though it was his first time assisting with music.
According to Leggett, in the past the program has hired out music directors or choreographers, who weren't always able come to every rehearsal. This year was their first time recruiting students to help with choreography and music direction, and per the number of nominations, it worked out to the production's benefit.
Many of the students in the production were also involved in other activities, such as chorus, the literary team, athletics and working part-time jobs.
Yet, despite crazy schedules and little sleep, the cast, crew and directors were dedicated to the success of the production, learning how to "fly" and dedicating hours to rehearsing and learning choreography.
When the time finally came for rehearsals to shift into performances with live audiences, the cast and crew were ready. Yet, to be officially a part of the Shuler Awards, they had to welcome some figures that might have intimidated the actors.
"(The Shuler Hensley Awards) have a panel of adjudicators they send across the state to see these different shows," Leggett said. "We have a panel of adjudicators (in our audience) that are highly qualified theater professionals to scale us on a rubric."
Though Calhoun's production of "Peter Pan: The Musical" wasn't necessarily judged against other schools since adjudicators vary per region, they were still scored on a competitive scale since receiving nominations is no easy accomplishment.
"There are 75 schools in the state (that compete) and only five schools get nominated for each category," Anderson said. "For us to have as many nominations as we have, I think it says something about the program, about its dexterity and strength."
The students all worked so hard, said Campbell Govignon, and seeing some of her friends nominated for awards was a special experience for her.
Megan Wright, who played Wendy and is involved in many aspects of the drama department, said this show was one of her favorites, commenting that the many student authority figures created a peaceful performing experience.
"Overall I think it definitely proved that we can do a monster of a show and have people flying and doing somersaults on stage. ... Our program can do anything if we unite together," said Jahlaynia Winters, a senior in the drama department.
In addition to the nominations already mentioned, Calhoun's program was also nominated for ensemble, scenic design (Robin Proffitt and Johnathan Elakman) and overall production, as well as having an honorable mention for Galyean in regards to costumes.
The statewide awards show will be televised live on GBP on April 18, where the Calhoun cast, crew and directors will travel to Atlanta's Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center to receive the final results.
Ledford, who starred as Peter, will compete for the chance to go to the national award show in New York City, called the Jimmy Awards, according to Leggett. If Ledford wins the leading actress award for the state, she will continue to the Jimmys.
A positive influence
When asked how the performing arts program at the high school impacted students' educational experience, the cast unanimously said the program had been a positive influence in their lives. Several even said because of their time in the department, they would be continuing to pursue careers in acting and performing.
"For me, I know Campbell, Haley and I all cheered together freshman year," Sophia Talley said. "If we had never quit cheer and joined drama, it would be a completely different experience. It's been the best high school experience."
Caroline Leggett, who acted as Captain Hook, said theater is her home, explaining how everyone came together and encouraged each other through lengthy rehearsals. She recalled how the cast and crew would stay at the auditorium eating pizza and talking to each other on the stage long after rehearsals had ended.
"There's no way not to bond during that," Caroline Leggett said.
Anne Fogle Jones said theater has taught her how to work well with others. She said she's learned how to present herself to others, how to be more confident in herself and who she wants to be. Other students agreed with Jones' comments, saying being a part of theater has helped them discover who they are.
A few seniors in the program said theater has influenced more than just their high school career, but their future occupations.
Deyonna Jackson is going to Savannah State University for musical theater. Winters and Ledford are both going to Young Harris College, also for the theater program. Each of them said their experiences in the drama department shifted their perspectives of themselves and positively changed how they interact with others.
"Theater has taught me a lot and I think it's been the most memorable year of my entire life," Winters said, tearing up as she recalled how the program had influenced her. "I love these people so much and I have no doubts about my life in theater. No matter what I do I feel fully prepared and I will continue to dare greatly for the rest of my life."
"Dare greatly" is a phrase many of the students said the performing arts program used to inspire their actors, singers and performers. Winters said it was going to be her motto for a long time.
And when asked how it felt being part of a program that had so much of an influence on high school students, Leggett said that's what it meant to be a teacher.
"We try to give them a safe environment and a place to have friends and to have a home," Leggett said. "We also want to teach them about excellence and how to be prepared for the next challenges in life. Hopefully, we're doing those things together."
Students clapped for Leggett and the other directors following her comments, saying they wouldn't have learned how to dare greatly without the help of her, Galyean and Wright.
"If drama did not exist at CHS, I guarantee you a lot of the people that are friends now would have never met," Anderson said. "This department has shown so much love to every person in it and I think that just makes it special."
Nine months after a destructive fire halted the restaurant's operations, construction for Calhoun's Taco Bell is back underway, and according to the Michigan-based contractor, the building should be completed by the end of May.
The City of Calhoun's Building Official Don McGinnis said he issued a permit on March 25 to Acme Enterprises, the new contractor who is currently overseeing construction on the fast food restaurant. But McGinnis doesn't estimate they will even need the permit for the allotted year.
In fact, the building official predicted the new contractors would have construction complete within three months. The superintendent for Acme said it would take even less time.
"I'm supposed to be out of here by the end of May," said Mohamad El-Fassih, who is supervising the rebuilding of Taco Bell at 481 Ga. 53. "We're going to be working hard to finish it up as soon as possible."
This comment comes after an original permit was issued to the first contractor in November of last year, following the July fire that damaged the restaurant. In December, McGinnis said he didn't foresee the restaurant being finished within any specific timeline, given that first contractor's workers had run into water damage and unexpected structural deterioration.
Three months later, McGinnis said the new contractor for the Taco Bell project has already been making significant progress in the week since they got their permit.
"The other contractor that was working for the Taco Bell Corporation, that guy's no longer with them," McGinnis said. "We re-permitted to the new contractor about a week ago, and I estimate these guys can turn it around in 90 days."
El-Fassih said Acme is an approved contractor with Taco Bell and has worked on many projects with the corporation before. He didn't know what happened with the first contractor, but just said he was asked to step in to finish the project.
Acme Enterprises is based in Roseville, Michigan, and as of last week, they have been eliminating parts of the building that were too damaged by the fire to be restored. On Wednesday, the Acme team was working on removing the exterior walls, building new frames for windows and doorways and replacing nearly everything on the roof.
El-Fassih said his workers "almost" had to start from scratch, as the only salvageable part of the building was some of the roof structure. But the restaurant is soon to be back in business, with Acme Enterprises working long hours in order to finish before June.