Voters in Maryland and Missouri recently elected to legalize recreational marijuana, which was previously allowed in 19 other states and the District of Columbia. Legalization proposals were not passed in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota following the Nov. 8 election.

In Colorado, where marijuana has been legal since 2012, voters elected to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms for adults 21 years and older to use under supervision in state-regulated “healing centers.”

This follows U.S. President Joe Biden’s Oct. 6 decision to pardon all prior federal offenses of marijuana possession. The Biden administration has also pushed to reevaluate the federal Schedule I classification of the drug, which means it has no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

If these states elect to legalize marijuana, Georgia will be left with more restrictive measures, despite Georgia recently taking steps to increase access to medical marijuana. 

The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission awarded two medical licenses to Botanical Sciences LLC and Trulieve Georgia Inc. on Sept. 21, allowing both companies to grow and sell marijuana oil, which must have less than 5% Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Additionally, state law will require that both companies begin production within a year.

Medical marijuana was recently made more accessible in Georgia. Courtesy of Flickr

The new legalization has left most physicians feeling like they can breathe a sigh of relief for patients to access safe medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries, according to Assistant Professor in Family and Preventive Medicine Ali Zarrabi, who is a palliative care physician at the Emory Supportive Care Clinic.

“I’m relieved our patients will now have a legitimate source where they can legally obtain cannabis products,” Zarrabi said. 

On April 15, 2015, Georgia passed the “Haleigh’s Hope Act” to decriminalize medical marijuana use. Under this act, physicians — including those who work for Emory Healthcare — can certify patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell disease and end-stage cancer to possess low amounts of THC oil. 

“In compliance with [f]ederal laws, however, Emory Healthcare providers do not prescribe or administer low THC oil to patients,” Emory Healthcare wrote in an email Assistant Director of University Communications Rachel Smith sent to the Wheel.

Upon the decriminalization of medical marijuana in 2015, Georgia did not have any dispensaries, so patients were not able to legally purchase it in Georgia, Zarrabi mentioned.

Before this legalization, Zarrabi said patients were only able to obtain medical marijuana from friends in other states and people who brought it to Georgia from out-of-state. 

He added that there’s a new level of security now that patients will be able to acquire lab-tested marijuana from Botanical Sciences LLC and Trulieve Georgia Inc. This will enable physicians to link marijuana that patients purchase to a greenhouse, where they can determine exactly what is used to produce the medical strain. However, physicians will still not be able to directly give patients THC.

“Our providers may ask if patients are taking low THC oil to ensure it does not adversely interact with other medications,” Emory Healthcare wrote in an email to the Wheel. “None of these activities are affected by the recent awarding of production licenses by the GA Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. Emory Healthcare’s top priorities are the safety and well-being of its patients.” 

Acquiring marijuana from drug dealers or from places out-of-state can be an unsafe practice, especially since it can be difficult to tell if marijuana is laced with any other drug. However, Zarrabi said that the Emory Supportive Care Clinic routinely offers drug testing for patients who purchase marijuana from unknown suppliers. He explained that although it is rare to find laced marijuana, it does occasionally happen.

This past year has seen a spike in drugs laced with fentanyl which has caused a rise in overdoses in Georgia. Thus, having a recognized place to purchase marijuana and the drug testing offered by Emory can help ensure that patients are safe and getting purely marijuana, Zarrabi added. 

Although Georgia is a historically red state, elections have had mixed results over the past few years. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) secured seats in the U.S. Senate in January 2021, making them the first Democrats to represent Georgia in the Senate since 2015. They established a slim Democratic majority with 50 Democratic senators and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who acts as a tie-breaker. After neither Republican candidate Herschel Walker or Warnock secured 50% of the vote, the 2022 Senate election will advance to a runoff.

The Emory Supportive Care Clinic has certified around 2,000 patients for medical cannabis since 2016. Courtesy of Emory University

The decriminalization of marijuana and the changing of the federal classification will affect millions of Americans, especially people of color. There has been a long history of disproportionate criminalization of consumption and possession of marijuana in Black and brown communities. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2020 that there were over six million arrests between 2010 and 2018 due to marijuana and that a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. Additionally, in some states such as Montana and Kentucky, Black people were almost 10 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. 

Despite Georgia’s past stigmatization of marijuana, Zarrabi shared that there has not been any pushback from the Emory community regarding patients’ ability to obtain medical marijuana.

Zarrabi said that the Emory Supportive Care Clinic has certified around 2,000 patients for medical cannabis since 2016. He noted that the majority of patients who were certified had diagnoses of cancer, chronic pain and peripheral neuropathy. 

According to Zarrabi, the Emory Supportive Care Clinic has been publishing articles since 2016. In one study, patients reported that they believed medical marijuana was most effective in treating chronic pain. 

“There are numerous studies that show cannabis can have multiple uses for patients, like chronic pain and neuropathic pain, and there’s emerging evidence that it can be used in things like anxiety associated with PTSD,” Zarrabi said.

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Assistant Multimedia Editor & Atlanta Campus Desk | Lauren Baydaline (she/her 23C) is from Los Angeles, California, majoring in biology and anthropology and human biology on the pre-med track. Outside of the Wheel, she is working in Dr. Escobar's lab and as a classroom technical assistant. Baydaline is also an avid volunteer for the Glendale YMCA. Her hobbies include cooking, reading, selling clothes on Depop, and working out.