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February 10, 2014

Medical marijuana gains traction in the Deep South

ATLANTA (AP) — Medical marijuana has been a non-starter in recent years in the Deep South, where many Republican lawmakers feared it could lead to widespread drug use and social ills. That now appears to be changing, with proposals to allow a form of medical marijuana gaining momentum in a handful of Southern states.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and this year powerful GOP lawmakers in Georgia and Alabama are putting their weight behind bills that would allow for the limited use of cannabis oil by those with specific medical conditions. Other Southern states are also weighing the issue with varying levels of support.

The key to swaying the hearts of conservative lawmakers has been the stories of children suffering up to 100 seizures a day whose parents say they could benefit from access to cannabidiol, which would be administered orally in a liquid form. And proponents argue the cannabis oil is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes users feel high.

"I'm an unlikely champion for this cause," said Georgia Rep. Allen Peake, a businessman from Macon who attended the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary. "Once people realize it's not a 6-year-old smoking a joint, most folks realize this is the compassionate thing to do."

Peake's bill has already earned the backing of more than 80 state lawmakers, including several members of the House Republican leadership, who signed on as co-sponsors and the state's largest professional association of doctors. The bill would revive a long-dormant research program allowing academic institutions to distribute the medical cannabis and would be "limited in scope, tightly restricted, well regulated and managed by doctors," Peake said.

Alabama Rep. Mike Ball, a retired hostage negotiator for the State Patrol, is behind a bill that would allow people to possess the cannabis oil if they have certain medical conditions. It passed a key committee vote on Wednesday.

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