- Associated Press - Monday, March 23, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia House Speaker David Ralston says he hopes both chambers will vote this week on a bill allowing people with any of eight medical conditions to use a type of medical marijuana.

Ralston told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that he’d rather not wait until the final week of the legislative session to consider that bill. Lawmakers hope to wrap up the session’s 40 working days on April 2.

After an emotional, lengthy hearing Thursday, a Senate committee approved a bill granting legal use of cannabis oil for cancer, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Mitochondrial disease, Fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell anemia. A House version sponsored by State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, would also have allowed people with Fibromyalgia to use the oil but the Senate panel cut that diagnosis.

“Anytime you make a list, you’re going to have people that want to add to or take from,” Ralston said. “I think we’re going to have to wait and see how this is implemented on the ground after it’s signed into law.”

The bill is on the Senate’s floor calendar for Tuesday. Peake said Monday that if the Senate makes no further changes, he will urge House members to back it and get the bill to Gov. Nathan Deal within the day.

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TO-DO LIST

Ralston said House lawmakers have three remaining major tasks: considering the governor’s constitutional amendment to take over failing schools and negotiating with the Senate over differences between each chamber’s approach to the next budget and a much-debated transportation package.

A study committee last year concluded that it will cost an additional $1 billion per year just to maintain roads and bridges. Ralston said he won’t set specific numbers but lawmakers should keep the state’s needs in mind.

“I’m not going to say if we come up a little bit short of that, that I wouldn’t accept that,” Ralston said. “We’ve got to do something as strong as we can.”

Ralston has thrown his full support behind Deal’s plan to appoint a superintendent accountable to the governor who could take over schools dubbed “chronically failing” for three years in a row. He said that some conservative lawmakers’ concern about removing school boards from local control is faulty.

“I think we’re having to ask ourselves the question: Is our obligation to provide a quality education to every child in Georgia outweighed by the hands-off attitude to systems that persistently fail?” he said.

Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval in each chamber. Deal’s plan passed the Senate with exactly that margin. It would be on ballots statewide in 2016 if the House passes the bill.

A House committee approved the amendment and accompanying legislation on Monday afternoon.

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‘RELIGIOUS FREEDOM’ DEBATE

Ralston has become a key figure in the debate over a divisive bill that supporters say protects religious freedom and opponents fear will excuse discrimination.

On Friday, he maintained he hasn’t made up his mind about the bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.

McKoon’s bill would forbid state government from infringing on religious beliefs unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest. It doesn’t mention lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals, but state and national organizations fear it will create legal cover for discrimination against them by individuals or businesses.

Ralston said a House subcommittee meeting Tuesday to review the bill will take a “thoughtful, serious-minded” look at the issues raised by both sides.

“This is an issue that needs to be resolved in that fashion, rather than … hysterical screaming out in the media,” he said. “The issue’s too serious for that.”

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Associated Press reporter Bill Hendrick contributed to this report.


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