A coalition of Republican state representatives wants to let voters settle the stalemate on medical marijuana in Georgia.
Possession of low-THC oil with a prescription has been legal since 2015, but it can't be manufactured or bought in the state and it's against federal law to bring it across state lines.
House Resolution 36 — sponsored by Rep. Alan Peake, R-Macon, and four other GOP leaders — would set up a statewide vote on regulating the production and sale of medical cannabis. Because it would be a constitutional amendment, it requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Georgia General Assembly to make it on the ballot.
The measure is awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
Meanwhile, Peake, who chairs the Medical Cannabis Working Group, is also trying to move his House Bill 645, submitted at the close of last year's session.
The measure would allow the Georgia Department of Public Health to license up to 10 medical marijuana dispensaries and two facilities to produce the low-THC oil.
'Time is passing'
Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, is a member of Peake's working group, which voted last month to support HB 645, but she wasn't optimistic about its chances Friday.
"It's got a ways to go," she said.
Dempsey said the best solution for Georgia, and the 30 other states where medical marijuana is legal, is for Congress to step in and allow transportation across state lines. That would preclude the need for multiple regulated dispensaries and growing operations, and encourage more clinical trials, she said.
"I think there will be a great deal of discussion about it, but time is passing so fast," Dempsey said. "We're already halfway to Crossover Day ... and some things just get caught in the crosshairs."
Crossover Day, which is Feb. 28 this year, is the deadline for legislation to pass from one chamber to the other.
Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, is a deputy whip — one of a cadre of representatives charged with rounding up votes for key legislation. He also said a change to federal law would be the best-case scenario but noted that there's no sign on the horizon.
"This (HB 645) is the next step if we're going to provide a way for those with a legitimate need to have access," he said. "It's the only solution I've heard that would accomplish that."
Lumsden said Friday that he's unaware of a concentrated push to pass either of Peake's proposals, but he's not counting them out.
"I don't know what would happen in the Senate, but in the House we have been supportive of getting the oil to people with a legitimate need," he said.
Floyd County businessman Harley Gambrell — whose autistic son is prescribed low-THC oil but cannot legally acquire it — has called Georgia's medical marijuana law "an empty promise" so far.
The General Assembly approved use of the oil in 2015 to treat eight conditions and, last year, added another six plus patients in hospice care. The oil does not get people high.
A state registry tracking prescriptions showed more than half went to patients controlling seizures or dealing with end-stage cancer, according to testimony in December by Donna Moore, director of the Georgia Public Health Vital Records Department that oversees the program.
Other conditions authorized for treatment under state law are severe or end-stage multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy, Crohn's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson's disease, sickle cell disease, Tourette's syndrome, autism, epidermolysis bullosa, Alzheimer's disease and AIDS.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome
District 52: All of Floyd, parts of Bartow, Chattooga and Gordon counties
Capitol Phone: 404-656-0034
Capitol Address: 121 State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334
District Phone: 706-291-6191
Committees: Appropriations (ex officio); Finance (chairman); Health and Human Services; Higher Education; Retirement (vice chairman).
Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome
District 13: Central Floyd County, including Rome
Capitol Phone: 404-463-2248
Capitol Address: 245 State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334
Email: Katie.Dempsey@house. ga.gov
District Phone: 706-676-7370
Committees: Higher Education; Rules; Economic Development and Tourism; Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications; Health and Human Services; Appropriations (human resources subcommittee chair); Transportation
Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville
District 14: Northern half of Bartow and southeast Floyd counties
Capitol Phone: 404-656-7153
Capitol Address: 218 State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334
District Phone: 770-383-9171
Committees: Majority whip; Appropriations; Banks and Banking; Ethics; Transportation; Judiciary Non-Civil; Juvenile Justice; Retirement; Rules
Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee
District 12: All of Chattooga and western half of Floyd
Capitol Phone: 404-656-0325
Capitol Address: 612A Coverdell Legislative Office Building, 18 Capitol Square, Atlanta GA 30334
Email: Eddie.Lumsden@house. ga.gov
District Phone: 706-232-1870
Committees: Deputy whip; Human Relations & Aging (chairman); Budget and Fiscal Affairs; Insurance; Public Safety and Homeland Security; Government Affairs; State Properties; Appropriations (education subcommittee).
'It was cool how everyone came together'
Injuries to hunting hawks are not altogether unusual, but when local falconer Lex Vick saw what had happened to his almost 5-year-old red-tailed hawk Koda, he knew it was something that was going to require special attention. Koda injured a talon during a hunt when a fox squirrel objected rather strenuously to being picked up for lunch by the hawk.
Vick's, father, Dr. James Vick, is also a falconer and asked orthopedic specialist Dr. Michael Paxton if he would be interested in taking a look at the hawk. Paxton, who practices through the Rome Orthopaedic Center and specializes in hand procedures, said it wasn't his everyday case and asked Vick to send him pictures of the raptor.
"He explained to me initially that it was a lacerated tendon. I looked at it and it looked a little bit different," Paxton said. "The tendon actually pulled off the bone where it attached. In humans we can get something like that, called a Jersey finger."
Paxton said there are different ways to repair it in humans and said, "I was trying to figure out the best way to repair it, if it was the case for this"
West Rome Animal Clinic owner Dr. Dan Pate had worked on hawks with Dr. Vick and his son a number of times over the years, and offered his surgical theater and anesthesia for the operation. At some point during various discussions of how to best treat the serious wound, Pate said David Hoyt, a local orthopedic drug representative, offered up a prosthetic bone anchor for the surgery.
"We were able to drill into the bone, put the anchor in and then tie the stitches down with the tendon in place," Paxton said. "(It was) definitely the most unique procedure and it was pretty awesome, pretty fun to be involved in something like this," Paxton said. "It was cool how everyone came together and we were able to all work together."
The hawk is making a nice recovery but is not going to be able to hunt for a while yet. This past Thursday, Paxton put his finger to the sharp claw at the end of the talon and was amazed at the tension Koda was able to put on his finger. He said that without the prosthetic bone anchor, the hawk might never have been able to fully grip and lift anything in that talon again.
Pate said Paxton was so meticulous in preparing for the surgery.
"Right now it's looking pretty good," Paxton said. "In humans we would splint them (during recovery) but that was not possible with the hawk."
Vick the younger, a veterinary assistant with Pate who said he is definitely interested in going on to vet school, is feeding antibiotics to Koda in squirrels and other meat the hawk isn't having to work for during her recovery.
Vick is very confident that his almost 5-year-old hawk will be able to hunt again soon and invited Paxton out to watch his patient do her thing.
When Alan Fuller graduated from Shorter College with a degree in music, he never dreamed the career he sought in ministry — working with youth and directing music programs — would lead him to where he is today. He took a full 180-degree turn that would change his career and himself, he said, more than he thought possible.
"I always had a sense of my calling into ministry," Fuller said. "It was in high school I first started working with the youth and music programs at my church. I knew God was leading me into that role."
After graduating from Shorter in 1986, Fuller said he worked in various youth and music leader roles, but strongly felt the call to become a minister.
"I decided to enroll in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary," Fuller said. "Seminary is different from other fields of study — it requires 90-100 hours of classroom work as opposed to the usual 45-60 hours any other Master's program might. I enjoyed it, but it was demanding work. I graduated with a master's degree in Divinity in the year of 1991."
A sideways boot
Fuller said that he served as minister for quite a few Southern Baptist churches before things changed in an incredible way.
"In 2003 I was in-between churches and looking for something to do," Fuller said. "An acquaintance from Floyd Medical Center called me and asked if I would be interested working as a chaplain for their hospice group, they had a vacancy."
Fuller said that though it had not been something he had planned for in his career, that maybe this would be something to keep him busy until a church opened up for him.
"God sort of booted me sideways into this work," Fuller laughed. "I had thought of this as an opportunity to do something new, a new ministry. I never realized the work would fire on so many cylinders for me. I get so much fulfillment from my work now."
What Fuller had thought was a short-term solution has been his long-term career. He has recently celebrated his 14th year as the chaplain at FMC, citing it as being more than a paycheck, rather it has become his passion.
How to make hospice work
"My grandfather was my first experience ever with hospice," Fuller said. "He was 80 years old and diagnosed with leukemia. He told the doctor he didn't want to do any treatments and the doctor agreed that he would do all he could to make him comfortable."
Fuller said that was 27 years ago, and he still appreciates how they helped the family and his grandfather through the situation.
Fuller said hospice care is not always just for the patient, they are also there to support the family if needed.
"We are there to walk the patient through the last leg of their journey with their loved ones, friends, family or whomever needs us," Fuller said. "Each case has its own particular set of trials and tribulations."
Fuller said that as Chaplain he is there to provide spiritual support for the patient, family and friends. Other caregivers are there to help with other aspects of each case.
"Some of my most difficult cases have been when doctors or nurses have had a loved one go into hospice," Fuller said. "It is hard to separate your professional knowledge and just accept what your heart and gut are telling you. Sometimes you must tell them 'just be a husband, wife, daughter or son'."
Fuller said it is harder for those professionals because they are so often in the caregiving role — and it is hard to let go.
"Occasionally someone will say to one of us that they could never do what we are doing because it is so sad," Fuller explained. "My wife even asked me after the first year if I was OK, she was concerned all the grief I was around would be too stressful."
Fuller said what surprised him is that he was OK, he wasn't stressed, he felt fulfilled. What he had thought would be a stop-gap was what and where he was supposed to be all along.
"There are lots of things I could never do," Fuller laughed. "I could definitely never be a middle school teacher. I know that would have made me mentally ill. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing."
Fuller said he agrees the work does take a special kind of person. It takes a lot of adjustment and learning how to separate from the families' emotions, so you can help them.
"God prepares us for what he calls us to do," Fuller said. "The people who work in hospice do it because they have an understanding of the need and a drive to do the work."
"One of the side effects of working in hospice is you experience things with people sometimes the same age as you and you see warning signs," Fuller said. "Many of our patients are dying of cancer and heart disease — something you might be not have been so aware of before."
Fuller said it makes you more aware of your own health and you might pick up on things you need sooner than someone else.
"Over time we are all affected in some way by this work — pushing us to grow as a people as we face new situations," Fuller said. "It makes you think about things very differently and you realize there is no fear in all of this. It makes you plan ahead."
Fuller said that he has learned that there are some very important things that all people should think about and discuss before they are in a bad situation.
"If you make your own decisions about your health care it takes all the family angst out of situations and essentially, when it happens, the grief process," Fuller explained. "It is very important to have a plan."
Fuller said that his advice to all adults are to sit down and make out a will.
"Establish what you want before you cannot communicate it yourself," Fuller explained. "You never know what or when something could happen."
Fuller also said it is important to pick a person — whether it be family or friend — who will be your trusted representative. "If you do not pre-choose the person you want it will go in order of spouse if you are married, if you are unmarried it will be your parents or kids or siblings," he said. "It can complicate things."
Fuller said he feels it is very important we all exercise our legal right to make our decisions while we can.
"As a caregiver they are going to try to save you no matter what — and that means NO matter what," Fuller explains. "It is better for us as caregivers to know if you want to be resuscitated no matter what, or if you want to pass on in certain situations."
Fuller said his own experience with his grandfather spoke to this very thing.
"My grandfather knew it didn't make sense to do treatment that would most likely kill him sooner, and he decided that he wanted to pass peacefully and comfortably with his family," Fuller explained. "Preparing ahead makes decisions like this within your control."
Fuller said that though these decisions can be hard, it helps your family also to be able to truly grieve.
"Ultimately in these situations when we experience extremes of emotions we become different people," Fuller said. "Better people with a deepened character."
What is retirement?
At 59 years of age, Fuller said he has no plans of ever seeking a real retirement. What does that mean?
"My 85-year-old mother still works as a secretary for her church 20 hours a week in my hometown. Even today she can work circles around other people half her age," Fuller laughed. "I am just like her! I will work until I cannot work."
Fuller has been married to his wife Renee for 32 years. They share two children — a 29-year-old son and a 27-year-old daughter — both are happily married.
Fuller said that while he plans on continuing to work, he is looking forward to eventually welcoming grandchildren to the family.
Georgia now has 51 confirmed flu-related deaths, up from 37 on Wednesday and 25 just a week ago.
The state Department of Public Health also reported Friday that there were 120 hospitalizations due to influenza infection in the eight-county metro Atlanta region during the week of Jan. 21 through Jan. 27.
Nationally, the CDC reported an additional 16 flu deaths among children, bringing the U.S. total to 53. Public Health has confirmed one pediatric death in Georgia, identified by media reports as a Newnan teenager.
About half of the children who died apparently had been healthy and had no special vulnerability to this viral disease, Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC, said Friday.
"Unfortunately, our latest tracking data indicate flu activity is still high and widespread," Schuchat said at a weekly briefing. The report is from data as of one week ago, the 10th week of this flu season.
"So far this year, the cumulative rate of hospitalizations is the highest since we've been tracking in this way, which goes back to 2010,'' Schuchat said.
"This is a very difficult season," she added.
The CDC also recorded an increase in the percentage of patients who visited medical providers complaining of influenza-like illness across the nation.
"We have not hit our peak yet, unfortunately," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said, according to CNN. "Really, the bottom line is, there is still likely many more weeks to go."
Nationally, only about 20 percent of those children who died had been vaccinated, said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC's influenza division, according to NPR. Even though this year's vaccination is not very effective, health officials say it still offers some protection. And they say it's not too late to get vaccinated.
Schuchat said parents should be especially concerned if their child has a high fever. In that case, parents should call their doctor to see whether a child needs to be seen or taken to an emergency room, NPR reported. "Worrisome signs are a very high persisting fever, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat or shallow rapid breathing, or significant tiredness or confusion."
The predominant flu strain this season, H3N2, typically leads to more illnesses and deaths.
Dr. Patrick O'Neal, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, said this week that Georgians should call ahead to a doctor's office, pharmacy or Public Health to see if they have availability of vaccine.
Among other Public Health recommendations:
• Stay home from work or school if you're sick, so you don't spread the flu. Before returning to school or work, flu sufferers should be free of fever (without the use of a fever reducer) for at least 24 hours.
• If your doctor prescribes antivirals, take them.
• If you're not sick, stay away from people who are.
• Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently to help guard against the flu. If soap and water are not accessible, the next best thing is to use alcohol-based sanitizing gels.
• Cover the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of the flu. Use a tissue, or cough or sneeze into the crook of the elbow or arm.
• Avoid touching your face, as flu germs can get into the body through mucus membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes.
Georgia Health News, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, tracks state medical issues on its website georgiahealthnews.com.
Today's artwork is by Gabby Matthews, a fifth-grader at Unity Christian School.