Georgia doesn’t have a hemp market yet, but that is about to change. In 2019, the Georgia state legislature passed two bills: HB 213, the Georgia Hemp Farming Act and HB 324, the Hope Act, which legalized low-THC oil. While the regulatory framework for the program is still being decided, the market in the state is now beginning to materialize.
Kevin Quirk, CEO of Harvest Connect LLC, wants to be a pioneer for the hemp industry in the Southeast. With a strong focus on local economic growth, Quirk is moving quickly to corner the market and establish a thriving enterprise. His background is in consumer packaged goods (CPG). He’s worked for Anheuser-Busch, Coca Cola and Minute Maid before becoming an entrepreneur in the CPG space. He started White Hat Brands, a children’s health and wellness company, where they worked with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to co-develop wellness brands for children.
During that time, he saw two major trends unfolding in the CPG arena: organic health and wellness products and hemp-derived CBD products. “Every year we’d see more and more CBD products on the market,” says Quirk. “Almost a year ago, we decided to get into the hemp space coinciding with Georgia’s push around the hemp and medical cannabis market.” That’s when Georgia’s state legislature introduced those two bills.
In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael wiped out an entire season of crops for Georgia farmers, an almost $3 billion hit to the local agricultural economy. Farmers in Georgia were devastated, taking massive losses. “That put momentum behind the hemp program and gave Governor Kemp the impetus to move forward right after the 2018 Farm Bill passed,” says Quirk. With the launch of his newest venture, Harvest Connect LLC, a Georgia-based hemp-derived CBD extraction and retail company, he saw a way to help some farmers get back on their feet.
Quirk says he expects the state will have applications ready for submittal in the next 60-90 days. The state is going to issue permits to processors and farmers. For farmers, the barriers to entry are pretty low- just $50 per acre for a hemp farming permit with a $5 thousand dollar cap. For a processing permit, the barriers are higher and include an application fee, a surety bond and a minimum of at least five Georgia farmers committed to process in a permitted facility. According to Quirk, it is also critical to understand how to manufacture quality products in a highly regulated environment. Quirk has experience in building and running food-grade USDA and FDA manufacturing facilities and already has a number of farmers signed up to process with them once the program gets off the ground. Many of them are tobacco and cotton farmers hit hard in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Harvest Connect, through its subsidiary Graceleaf, is planning to launch a series of retail CBD stores throughout the state. “This will help us meet the demand in Georgia, which will help patients in Georgia and which will then help farmers in Georgia,” says Quirk. Georgia hasn’t launched a new agricultural product in decades at least, so for Quirk and Harvest Connect, this is about putting Georgia farmers first. “We plan to work very closely with our growers as partners to make sure everyone succeeds,” he added.
Quirk predicts the Southeast will be a leading producer of hemp for years to come. “I think it’s going to be huge,” says Quirk. “With just the pure amount of agricultural land mass that we have, plus the ideal climate, we’ll be able to turn 2-3 crops a year in the southern parts of Georgia. We actually think Georgia could be one of the most significant producers of hemp in the country.”
While the state is working on promulgating the rules, establishing the licensing process and rolling out the hemp program, Quirk is working to iron out the details of his business so they are ready as soon as the time comes. “We expect to be up and running with our processing facility by Q2 of 2020.”
Under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Controlled Substance Act (CSA), drugs are classified into five distinct schedules depending upon their acceptable medical use and their overall potential for abuse or dependency. The DEA currently lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which the CSA defines as drugs having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It appears, however, that the DEA may soon reconsider its current Schedule I classification of cannabis.
This article considers how the DEA’s potential reclassification of cannabis potentially could affect Georgia’s medical cannabis industry. Specifically, the article discusses: (1) how Georgia medical cannabis distributors would operate within this new regulatory framework; (2) how this change would affect registered Georgia patients who are either currently purchasing medical cannabis or are planning to do so; and (3) whether this reclassification would cause big pharmaceutical companies to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market, and if so, how.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Regulatory Framework of Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Industry
On April 2, 2019, Georgia became the 34th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for medicinal use when the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 324 (“HB 324”), which recently took effect on Monday, July 1, 2019. In Georgia, medical cannabis is defined as a “low-THC oil” that contains 5% or less of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that causes a “high.”
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the regulatory framework of Georgia’s medical cannabis industry under HB 324 would likely be affected. For instance, depending on how the DEA elects to reclassify cannabis, low-THC oil products manufactured and sold in Georgia could become subject to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) costly, complicated and time-consuming drug approval process. Then, any low THC oil products that the FDA approves will be subject to federally mandated quality, efficacy and potency standards for FDA-approved drugs. Also, any federal standards that stem from the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis will trump any conflicting provisions in HB 324 or any other conflicting rules, regulations or procedures established by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission (GAMCC), the seven member state agency responsible for promulgating and implementing the state-based rules, regulations and procedures necessary to produce and distribute low-THC oil in Georgia, and the Georgia State Board of Pharmacy (Pharmacy Board). However, even if the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the following state regulatory framework established by HB 324 will remain unaffected:
The GAMCC will likely continue to oversee the state’s medical cannabis industry.
The following two different types of dispensary licenses issued under the legislation will still likely remain: retail outlets (issued by the GAMCC) and pharmacies (issued by the Pharmacy Board).
Licensed dispensaries will still likely not be located within a 1,000-foot radius of a school or church, and licensed production facilities will still not be located within a 3,000-foot radius of a school or church.
Pharmacists who dispense low-THC oil will still likely have to review each registered patient’s information on the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) database to confirm that they have been diagnosed with one or more of the 17 approved conditions and diseases. The legislation does not require retail outlet dispensaries to review patient information on the PDMP database or employ a pharmacist to dispense the drug.
Registered patients will still likely be prohibited from vaping low-THC oil or inhaling it by any other electronic means. The legislation does not expressly prohibit the use of other, non-electronic delivery methods of low THC oil such as pills or nasal spray.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be subject to an “on-demand” inspection when requested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the GAMCC, the four-member Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee (MCCOC), or local law enforcement. The GAMCC and the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency (GDNA) will also still likely be able to conduct one, annual inspection of dispensary locations. And, upon request, licensed dispensaries will still likely be required to immediately provide a sample of their low-THC oil for laboratory testing to the GBI, GAMCC, MCCOC, GDNA or local law enforcement.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production facilities) will still likely be required to utilize a GAMCC-approved seed-to-sale tracking software.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be prohibited from advertising or marketing their low-THC oil products to registered patients or the public. However, they will still likely be allowed to provide information about their products directly to physicians, and upon request, physicians will still likely be allowed to furnish the names of licensed dispensaries (and licensed production companies) to registered patients or their caregivers.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Availability of Low THC Oil
To date, approximately 9,500 Georgians are registered with the state’s Low-THC Registry, which allows them to purchase low-THC oil from licensed dispensaries. Since the legislation’s passage, the number of registered patients has increased significantly and continues to steadily rise. If the DEA reclassifies marijuana, this patient number will likely increase at an even faster rate because the public will likely perceive reclassification as an acknowledgement by the federal government that marijuana possesses health and medicinal benefits. If that occurs, statewide demand for low THC oil could quickly outstrip the supply.
Under HB 324, the GAMCC is tasked with ensuring that the state has a sufficient number of retail outlet dispensaries across the state to meet patient demand but is limited to issuing only six production licenses. As the number of registered patients continues to grow, the GAMCC may be forced to recommend amendments to the statute allowing it to issue additional production licenses to increase the state’s supply of low THC oil, and depending on how many additional patients are added to the state’s Low-THC Registry, the GAMCC may also have to issue additional dispensary licenses to keep up with patient demand by relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries.
Thus, the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis likely would affect the amount of low THC oil available to registered patients in Georgia.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Cause Large Pharmaceutical Companies to Enter Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Market
Large pharmaceutical companies typically manufacture, market, sell and ship their products on a national and international scale. Given cannabis’ current status as a Schedule I drug under the CSA, these companies have largely steered clear of the burgeoning medical marijuana industry because of the inherent risk of violating federal law. If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, that risk will be diminished greatly, and the companies therefore will likely decide to enter the market by acquiring existing medical marijuana companies with established national or state-level medical cannabis brands.
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways.Depending on how the DEA reclassifies cannabis, low-THC oil in Georgia could be subject to stringent federal standards, including the FDA’s complex and expensive drug approval process. Georgia medical cannabis companies will likely not be accustomed to complying with such federal regulations. Large pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, are very accustomed to dealing with the federal government, including FDA drug approval. So, if the DEA reclassifies marijuana, pharmaceutical companies will likely view reclassification as a tremendous opportunity to enter the Georgia market by leveraging their experience and institutional knowledge dealing with federal law to acquire or partner with a licensed Georgia cannabis company that has an established brand of low -HC oil.
Entering Georgia’s medical cannabis market won’t be easy, however, because HB 324 prohibits licensees from transferring their licenses for five years and requires that the original licensee be a Georgia business. But, HB 324 does not prohibit them from selling their businesses, which necessarily includes any licenses the business owns. Purchasing a licensed Georgia medical cannabis company requires payment of a production license business transfer fee. The fee for the first sale of a business with a Class 1 production license is $100,000 and the fee for a Class 2 license is $12,500. The fee for the second sale is $150,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $62,500 for a Class 2 license. The fee for the third and fourth sales is $200,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $112,500 for a Class 2 license.
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways. Specifically, depending on how the drug is reclassified, the regulatory framework for medical cannabis companies likely will change to include both state and federal requirements, potentially including the FDA’s complex drug approval process. Also, the amount of low-THC oil available for registered patients to purchase likely will be diminished precipitating the need for the GAMCC to modify the statute to allow for issuing additional production licenses and relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries. Finally, large pharmaceutical companies likely will attempt to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market by purchasing existing, licensed Georgia companies that have established low-THC oil brands.
On Wednesday, April 17, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 324 into law, closing a loophole that has been around for years, which prevented the cultivation of cannabis in-state. Before the signing of this bill, possession of medical cannabis was technically legal, but the cultivation of it was still illegal under state law, preventing legal patient access entirely.
Back in 2015, Georgia’s legislature legalized medical cannabis with less than 5% THC, as well as CBD oil for a number of qualifying conditions. Since then, the state has added more qualifying conditions such as chronic pain and PTSD, bringing the total to sixteen types of illnesses that would qualify patients for medical cannabis.
Governor Kemp signing HB 324 into law sets in motion the process to establish a regulatory framework for six growing licenses in the state. According to WSB-TV Atlanta, the new law goes into effect on July 1, but it could take up to two years to establish legitimate cultivation operations in the state. The law gives a state commission the authority to investigate and establish the regulations further.
That state commission will give priority to pharmacies for distributing cannabis, but reserves the right to establish licenses for independent retail locations as well. According to ABCNews, “The commission can also attempt to legally obtain the oil from other states. Two universities will be allowed to seek federal approval to research and produce the oil.”
President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama for Attorney General and Rep. Tom Price from Georgia as the new Health Secretary. Those appointments still require Senate approval before they are officially members of the cabinet. Neither of the picks to head the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) is friendly to cannabis.
What’s the bad news?
Both of those agencies are at the center of any federal regulation of cannabis, including access for research. As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions would essentially have the ability to block any rescheduling efforts, as outlined in the Controlled Substances Act.
Sessions has made inflammatory, racist remarks and showed his disdain for cannabis users on multiple occasions. He disgracefully said at a Senate hearing in April, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” When he was a federal prosecutor, Sessions was a prominent advocate for the War on Drugs, and perhaps even still is.
Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, has voted repeatedly against pro-cannabis legalization bills, including twice against the Veterans Equal Access Amendment as well as the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment, which “prohibits the use of funds in the bill to supersede State law in those States that have legalized the use of medical marijuana.” NORML’s Georgia Scorecard gave Tom Price a D grade for his previously voting against pro-cannabis bills.
What’s the good news?
While Sen. Jeff Sessions is certainly no friend to legal cannabis, I believe he is not a serious danger to the cannabis industry. This op-ed on CNN does a terrific job at summing up Sessions’ potential threat to the cannabis industry, but also why it may not be cause for a total panic. The author mentions a laundry list of DoJ priorities over cannabis, but I think the larger issue at hand is states’ rights.
Republicans are historically passionate when it comes to keeping states’ rights sovereign. With cannabis’ big wins on Election Day, a majority of the country’s population now lives in states where cannabis is legal.
There is too much momentum behind legal cannabis for a new administration to waste precious resources and time on trying to disrupt it. States are getting too much tax revenue from regulating cannabis to just let the DoJ interfere with their economies. “Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “Senator Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states’ rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected.” Smith’s words in the NCIA statement are pointed and clear: this is a states’ rights issue at heart and they must respect that.
By forcing the states’ rights issue to the front, it is possible to put legal cannabis in a bipartisan lens, thus eliminating the possibility of a few old drug war stalwarts disrupting the industry. While rescheduling efforts could be thwarted for the coming years, I have faith that the federal government will not interfere with states that legalize cannabis.
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