State regulators in Georgia were left wondering if they will be able to continue their roll out of a medical cannabis program that includes existing licensed pharmacies, after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency sent a stern warning to would-be providers of low-THC medical cannabis products.
The DEA in late November reminded registered pharmacies that they must follow all federal laws and that cannabis remains an illegal Schedule 1 drug on the federal level. The warning came about a month after the state began authorizing pharmacies to serve medical cannabis patients.
“Neither marijuana nor THC can lawfully be possessed, handled, or dispensed by any DEA-registered pharmacy. Under federal law, products derived from the cannabis plant with delta-9-THC content above 0.3% are considered marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance,” said the letter, which was signed by Matthew Strait, deputy assistant administrator for the DEA’s Diversion Control Division. “Further, products that contain any amount of a synthetically produced THC are considered to be tetrahydrocannabinols, likewise a Schedule I controlled substance.”
As a result, the state’s Board of Pharmacy has temporarily stopped issuing new cannabis licenses, according to Georgia Department of Community Health spokesperson Fiona Roberts.
“The Board [of Pharmacy] has taken this matter under consideration and has sought legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General. This matter remains under consideration at present,” she said. “The Board has temporarily paused the processing and issuance of new Low THC Pharmacy Dispensary Licenses, pending a final decision by the Board as to the best path forward.”
Cannabis commissioners discuss ‘chilling effect’
The move complicates Georgia’s current attempts to roll out a medical cannabis program, which was discussed during the Dec. 14 meeting of the Georgia Access to Medical Marijuana Commission (GAMMC). But regulators fell short of announcing any solution to the looming federal oversight.
“It can kind of feel a little threatening, but that correspondence doesn’t state anything new,” said Jansen Head, general counsel for the GAMMC. “This is the same position that the federal government has had since the Controlled Substances Act became law in 1970. That’s over half a century ago. We’re aware of different federal laws being in place that need to be updated, but it does take time.”
Despite that amount of time, Head also noted that the federal government has been reluctant to enforce federal cannabis laws. In 2015, the U.S. Congress applied a rider to its annual appropriation for the Department of Justice, barring the law enforcement agency from using those funds to enforce federal cannabis laws that contradict state laws where cannabis is permitted. So far, Congress has renewed that rider every year.
“The Controlled Substances Act still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, however Congress has made clear that they recognize this tension between state and federal law,” said Head.
GAMMC Executive Director Andrew Turnage noted that regardless of the DEA’s willingness to follow through on enforcement, the notice has already had a chilling effect on the state’s efforts to roll out its medical cannabis program.
“Whatever the intent was with the DEA letter, more than half of our access points for medical relief, which are the pharmacies, are impacted and at risk of no longer making this medicine available to patients as recommended by their physicians,” he said. “I think we all know that our patients have been through more than enough.”
Valarie Valdepeña, executive director of Peachtree NORML, agreed with Turnage’s concerns on how this letter will affect the industry roll out, regardless of whether or not any additional enforcement takes place.
“It’s going to limit access. The one benefit of having cannabis in pharmacies is that there are more pharmacies in Georgia than the seven dispensaries that have been set up,” she said. “Georgia was trying to do something slightly different than other states, so of course you’re going to get pushback.”
Cannabis companies ready to expand market
Omega Pharmacy, in Omega, Ga., is owned by J. Thomas Lindsey. His pharmacy was one of the first three in the state to dispense cannabis products, and he received the letter from the DEA.
“I’m surprised that the DEA would allow this process to actually go live and all of a sudden they’ve changed their mind,” he said. “I hope it’s something that can be worked out.”
Georgia has over 400 independent pharmacies across the state, according to the American Pharmacists Association, and at least a third of them have reportedly applied for a cannabis license since the application window opened in October.
Botanical Sciences, one of Georgia’s first two medical cannabis product providers, announced that it had partnered with three pharmacies in the state that began dispensing the company’s products on Oct. 25. This came despite some concern that dispensing cannabis could put pharmacies’ DEA registration in jeopardy.
Pharmacies require a DEA registration number to dispense controlled substances such as opioids. If the DEA were to decide to visit a Georgia pharmacy for inspection and that pharmacy is selling cannabis products, there is a possibility that the establishment’s DEA registration could be suspended or revoked. However, the letter doesn’t specifically threaten that consequence.
Trulieve was the second cultivator and processor, and the company was licensed by Georgia alongside Botanical Sciences.
The Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commissions, which oversees the state’s medical cannabis industry, approved four new cultivation licenses on Nov. 15 for Fine Fettle, TheraTrue, Nature’s GA and Treevana Wellness. Each of these new licenses allow for 50,000 square feet of canopy.
Georgia is the first state in the nation to allow registered pharmacies to serve medical cannabis patients. The Georgia legislature legalized the possession of medical cannabis in 2015, but it was not until 2020 that the state passed a law allowing for the creation of a legal medical market. Along with creating the state’s first cultivation and dispensary licenses, it also included a license type for existing pharmacies that would be overseen by the Georgia Board of Pharmacy.
Georgia’s medical cannabis law allows for the production of low-THC cannabis products that contain less than 5% of THC. The state also limits the types of cannabis products that can be dispensed to oils, tinctures and edibles. Flower, pre-rolls and vapes are not permitted.
For now, it appears that the individual vendors will have to decide if they are willing to gamble on whether or not the DEA plans any further action.
“I no longer own a pharmacy, but if I did I would take the letter from the DEA as a direct threat to pharmacies, saying ‘if you dispense this product we’ll pull your DEA permit,” said GAMMC member Bill Prather. “People are accustomed to going to pharmacies. That’s where they get their prescriptions filled. It would be a huge help for our patients if they could get their medication in a pharmacy.”