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Lawmakers see a future for medical marijuana

POSTED: May 26, 2014 5:30 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

State Rep. Jon Burns, left, listens as state Sen. Jack Hill discusses some of the technical education initiatives passed in the General Assembly during the Effingham Chamber’s Eggs and Issues review breakfast.

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Bill Hitchens admitted he never thought he’d sign onto a bill that allowed for marijuana use.

The state representative from Rincon, and former commander of the state Department of Public Safety, discussed his support for House Bill 885, the legislation that provides for research into medical cannabis’ benefits.

“I worked in law enforcement all my life, and I never thought I would be an advocate for marijuana,” he said at Wednesday’s Effingham Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues review breakfast. “I was somewhat naïve about the application for medical marijuana.”

Medical marijuana is being used to relieve the constant pain experienced by some patients, such as those who have cancer. It also is being administered in other states to people who suffer from severe epilepsy, and Hitchens said there are seven children in Effingham County who have that diagnosis. They can have from 100 to 200 seizures a day, he said, and some of them can be severe.

“The brain can only stand so much of that,” he said.

Other research has shown some children suffering only one such seizure a week or even just once a month after being put on medical marijuana. The medical versions are stripped of THC, the chemical in marijuana that results in a “high” for marijuana users.

Gov. Nathan Deal is working with Georgia Regents University on research into cannabis oil to alleviate epileptic conditions.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” Hitchens said. “There was a lot of misinformation going on and I think it will succeed next year. All they want is the opportunity to try, and I think they ought to have it.”

The trials are ongoing now, said state Rep. Jon Burns, and will last 90 days.

“We hope and pray it’s a success,” he said.

Burns said the state has lived up to its obligation to support the Savannah harbor deepening. Both houses of Congress passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which includes federal funding for the $652 million project.

“I’m encouraged to see the federal government moving forward,” he said. “It’s an important project not just for Effingham and southeast Georgia but for the entire state. We appreciate the prospects for port deepening and what it means to our economy.”

Burns added the Last Mile project, which is expected to remove much of the heavy truck traffic bound for the ports off Highway 21, is moving along. Hitchens said a redesign of the I-95/Highway 21 interchange could be coming in the next several months.

“It’s a little odd,” he said of the concept, which is called a diamond configuration. “When you come off it, you’ll stay on the wrong side of the road for a while before you cut over. I don’t know any better way to explain it than that. The people who designed it say it’s much more efficient.”

Transportation is the number one issue in Hitchens’ district, which stretches into west Chatham County. He pointed out that when he came back to Effingham after years of living in Atlanta, he was taken aback by the traffic on 21, what he called the “Gulfstream 500.”

“And then when you’re trying to get home at 5 o’clock you can’t even get on to 21 (from I-95),” he said.

Burns, Hitchens and state Sen. Jack Hill, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, discussed transportation funding. Several of the counties Hill represents are part of the Heart of Georgia-Altamaha region, which approved the transportation special purpose local option sales tax two years ago.

According to the state Department of Transportation, the T-SPLOST is expected to generate more than $255 million for that area, with 764 projects in line for that funding.

“It is extremely well-received,” Hill said. “They have doubled the amount of money they can spend on local roads. The city of Glennville is resurfacing every road in town. Nobody from the business community has complained. It’s been successful.”

Burns said the T-SPLOST may come back for consideration, and a refinement of the project also is possible. Hill said the revenues from the motor fuel tax are growing, though it may not cover more beyond the top priorities and the metro Atlanta area may get the bulk of that funding. He also believes a local T-SPLOST may not be in the offing.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “The problem is no solution is going to be a solution unless it includes Atlanta and solves their problems.”

Hill also praised Gov. Deal’s initiatives to help students in the state’s technical colleges. One of the measures will pay full tuition for students in what are deemed as strategic skills, such as welding, diesel mechanic and health care technologies.

The governor also has proposed the Zell Miller Scholarship for students with a 3.5 grade point average or better in technical colleges, and there will be a $10 million revolving loan program to help students from low-income families who otherwise might not qualify for assistance. A similar loan program under the Board of Regents’ institutions started with $10 million and has grown to $89 million.

“As students pay it back, it will go to help other students,” Hill said.

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