The Monitor caught up with Georgia state representative Allen Peake, R-Macon, bright and early at 5:30 a.m. on March 26, 2015 as Peake was driving up to Atlanta for a television interview about one of the most talked-about pieces of legislation coming out of Atlanta this year, H.B. 1, Haleigh’s Hope Act. The act will provide for state-law-legal use in Georgia of low-THC cannabinoid oil, an extract of marijuana. Governor Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill quickly.
Monitor: Congratulations on getting the 160-1 victory in the House yesterday accepting the Senate’s amendment the day before that largely endorsed your bill by a 48-6 vote. Low-THC CBD oil will now become legal in Georgia for eight medical uses. How does it feel for you as the primary steward of this legislation?
Peake: It was a very emotional day yesterday, a culmination of fifteen months of work. I couldn’t be prouder of my colleagues for sticking with me. More importantly, I’m proud of these families who worked so hard, lobbied so tirelessly, for their loved ones. They’re the real heroes in this effort.
Monitor: Why is the bill important?
Peake: Let me say that I know that this oil won’t heal these children with seizure disorders, but I’ve seen and heard about what it can do to improve the quality of their lives every single day. And that’s also true for cancer patients, MS patients, sickle-cell disease patients, and plenty more.
Monitor: The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Class I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which means that marijuana is deemed federally to have no legitimate medical uses. Technically, H.B. 1 contradicts federal law. How do you justify that contradiction?
Peake: There’s a lot of laws in Georgia that contradict federal law. At the end of the day, this is a states’ rights issue. CBD clearly has medical value. It’s the sovereign right of our state to do something that we think is right for our citizens. And we’re not alone. Thirty-four other states have some type of provision for medical marijuana.
Monitor: The federal government has allowed the states some flexibility here. In other contexts, President Obama’s administration is being criticized for flaunting the plain language of statutes, as in immigration and healthcare. Why is this case different?
Peake: It’s been frustrating for me why the federal government hasn’t acted already to recognize the medical values of CBD. It’s going to have to happen. Congress needs to act by shifting marijuana out of Class I status. When a red state like Georgia is moving this way, you suspect that something’s not quite right with Washington’s approach. Immigration and healthcare laws are different from the Controlled Substances Act for a number of reasons.
Monitor: Georgia’s new approach on CBD will still put it among the more restrictive states regarding marijuana.
Peake: Yes and no. About 23 states have more wide-open laws, but other states, I think about 12, have more restrictive laws that only cover seizure disorders. Georgia will now become the only state with a law that is a true hybrid of the different approaches. We’ll allow use for seizure disorders, but also for a number of other diseases.
Monitor: Georgia’s Senate tweaked your bill by stripping fibromyalgia from that list. Doctors said that fibromyalgia is too loose of a diagnosis. What’s your take on that?
Peake: I’m not a medical professional, but that was a gut punch for me, because one of my constituents with fibromyalgia was a strong supporter of this effort. I’ll work next year to expand the law’s coverage to any disorders for which marijuana can be shown to have therapeutic value. Another diagnosis that’s on a potentially expanded list is rheumatoid arthritis.
Monitor: You tried to get a medical marijuana bill passed last year, but it got saddled down with another more controversial bill involving a mandate that private insurers cover autism. How did you avoid getting your medical marijuana bill this year from being tangled up with satellite issues like Senator Charlie Bethel’s autism bill, which appears again to be snagged in the House?
Peake: I’ve been supportive of Charlie’s initiative for suffering kids, and co-sponsored it, but it does appear to be bogged down in the House now. I think we all learned that we don’t need to tangle up two separate issues. Leadership played a role. I’m incredibly thankful to Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle for providing the opportunity for a clean bill on CBD, and to Senator Renee Unterman for helping shepherd this bill through the Senate without complication.
Monitor: So tell us about what else is up this year under the gold dome. How about the transportation bill?
Peake: We’ve got to address our under-funding for transportation. Do we want to have a bridge go down and have the country wondering what is going on in Georgia with its transportation? Do we want to be known everywhere as the big Atlanta traffic jam? The basic idea under consideration is to fix these problems by raising revenue through raising the excise tax, and cutting fuel subsidies for some like airlines and a few favored kinds of vehicle owners. We’re elected to make tough decisions. I’m ready to do it.
Monitor: Prospects for this bill seem dependent on some extrinsic factors. Does it help that that gas prices are down?
Peake: Sure. But any way you look at it, it makes sense to charge people on a use basis. That’s the merit of the excise tax approach to funding transportation infrastructure. Burn more gas, pay more for road usage.
Monitor: Another controversial issue under consideration is the proposed state religious freedom restoration act, or RFRA. How do you come down on that?
Peake: For me personally, it’s a difficult and emotional subject. I have a gay brother who has spoken against it. At the same time, I don’t think the proposed law subjects anyone to discrimination at all. I believe that in the 20 other states that have enacted these state RFRAs, there hasn’t been a single instance of discrimination caused by the laws.
Monitor: The bill if passed would avoid Colorado-type problems of wedding-cake bakers being required to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples against the bakers’ beliefs. How do you view legal requirements to do business against one’s beliefs?
Peake: As a business owner myself, I think that’s not a smart approach. I would never deny anyone service based on their sexual orientation. On the other hand, don’t we have to respect some business people’s legitimately held beliefs, and not force them into transactions that they would choose to avoid? Here in Georgia, we’re proposing an exception that would require critical needs to be provided. In Colorado, there were lots of other bakers who’d have been happy to have made that cake. That wasn’t a critical need.
Monitor: Some chambers of commerce have been critical of Georgia’s proposed RFRA. Why?
Peake: They apparently think that it would look bad for Georgia to have such a law. About twenty other states have similar laws, though, and it doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted their business climates.
Monitor: What’s up with education?
Peake: The governor’s proposal to encourage failing schools to get their acts together seems appropriate. There are a number of those schools in Bibb County. It could light a fire under them to change before being taken over. It would be a good incentive for change. It’s not a bad idea to shake things up if a school has been chronically failing.
Monitor: Are there any issues of local importance under the gold dome?
Peake: Payne City will be getting folded in to Macon-Bibb. We also considered whether to provide a way for Monroe County and Forsyth to consolidate. Macon-Bibb’s experience has been good enough that people in places like Milledgeville and Baldwin County are thinking of doing it. For the moment, though, we’re encouraging Monroe and Forsyth to work with the Vinson Institute to see what might make sense in terms of a specific proposal. The Vinson Institute worked with Milledgeville and Baldwin County, and their vote on their possible unification will come up on November 3.
Monitor: On a personal level, one Macon Monitor staffer, Alan Wood, editor of GWMAC, has guessed that you’ll be running for governor next time around. What say you?
Peake: I’m honored that you guys are talking about that. There are plenty of people who could do a great job in that role, many better than me. Still, I’d have to say that, with my business background, I’m personally better suited to an executive role as opposed to a legislative role, for instance as a congressman in Washington, which I see as a very troubled place.
As for the governor’s job, it’s a big deal. You’ve got to have the stomach for some rough treatment. There are a lot of considerations. I’m thinking about it, but I’m undecided about what I’ll do.