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From Chewing Gum to Pot:
How It Rolls in Georgia


A Special Report
Report Highlights
  • Wrigley’s owner who sold the family chewing gum business invested $65 million this week in Surterra, a five-year-old Georgia medical marijuana company that’s done no business in Georgia.
  • $100 million can buy a lot of seductive marketing (see examples in this article) to cover up the fact that Surterra products aren’t proven safe or effective by FDA, despite the safety and effectiveness claims the company makes about its products.
  • That kind of money can also buy access to policymakers and has. Surterra contributed to the re-election campaign of the president pro tem of the Georgia Senate who was appointed to serve on a study committee created by the legislature this year to push for marijuana cultivation, processing, and sales.
  • Georgia’s Speaker of the House appointed Surterra’s former president to serve on that same committee.
  • For five years, Georgia legislators have done little to support a pharmaceutical-grade cannabidiol medicine the governor made available to Georgia’s children with epilepsy through a statewide expanded access program. FDA just approved that medicine as safe and effective to treat epilepsy in children and young adults.
A Bloomberg news story Monday reveals that Beau Wrigley, Jr., invested $65 million in Surterra Wellness this week and signed on as its new chairman. The company is a medical marijuana business with licenses to operate in Florida and soon, Texas. Wrigley sold the family business, the Wrigley Company, maker of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, in 2008 and turned his attention to investing.
 
Oddly, Surterra, which says Wrigley’s investment brings its total raised to $100 million, was founded in Atlanta in 2014, the year Georgia Rep. Allen Peake began his quest to legalize marijuana for medical use in our state. Although founded five years ago, Surterra has conducted no business here, and no business anywhere else except in Florida, which passed a CBD bill and later a constitutional amendment to legalize full medical in 2016, effective a year later.
 
Nonetheless, Surterra representatives testified several times at various hearings Peake held as well as commissions and study committees he talked the legislature into authorizing on the subject or sometimes convened himself between 2014 and today.
 
The trajectory of Peake’s quest is instructive for how marijuana finds its way into the pharmacopoeia of anecdotes. Peake’s first bill called for legalizing CBD oil for children with epilepsy. The bill defined the oil as containing three-tenths of one percent THC and an equal or greater amount of CBD to treat one condition, childhood epilepsy. That bill failed.
Products Suterra sells on its website, Suterra.com/florida. None has been approved as safe or effective by FDA.
Governor Nathan Deal established and funded an FDA expanded access trial for Georgia children with epilepsy to access Epidiolex®. That drug, CBD extracted from marijuana and then purified was being developed by a British pharmaceutical company. FDA approved it a few months ago. Unlike the hundreds of CBD products for sale in states that have legalized them (but not required them to seek FDA approval), doctors will be able to prescribe (rather than just recommend) Epidiolex®, pharmacies (instead of dispensaries) will be able to sell it, and insurers will almost certainly cover its cost.
 
But the governor’s effort wasn’t good enough for Peake, who came back in 2015 with a bill to legalize “cannabis oil,” defined this time as containing 5 percent THC and any amount of CBD to treat epilepsy—and seven more conditions. This despite doctors’ warnings of little to no evidence that “cannabis oil” can effectively treat those conditions.
 
Some legislators said they thought they were upping the amount of THC from three-tenths to five-tenths of one percent, not 16 times that amount. Americans were getting high on marijuana with THC levels much lower than 5 percent from the 60s through the 90s. Some legislators, and a woman in the state public health department who updates the legislature on the implementation of our “medicinal cannabis” law, like to say that you’d have to drink a gallon of this stuff (5% THC oil) before you’d get high.
 
Peake’s 2015 bill passed. Emboldened, he introduced a bill in 2016 that disposed of cannabis oil altogether, calling for “whole plant extracts” with no THC limits for 20 conditions as well as marijuana cultivation, dispensaries, and sales. Although that bill failed, more followed, each pressing for more conditions and cultivation, processing, and sales, just like the “vertically integrated” (meaning a company that does all three) Surterra is doing now in Florida.
 
Unable to pass cultivation, Peake announced last year that he himself is distributing. He says he gives a $100,000 donation to a foundation in Colorado and every month boxes of CDB oils, THC oils, and THCA oils mysteriously show up at his Macon office, which he distributes to “patients who need them,” in essence daring police to arrest and martyr him for the cause. Law enforcement has not taken the bait.
 
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 52 people in Utah were poisoned by a product marketed as CBD that contained a synthetic cannabinoid and no CBD at all. The agency warned: “This investigation highlights the hazards of consuming unregulated products labeled as CBD. States could consider regulating products labeled as CBD and establishing surveillance systems for illness associated with products labeled as CBD to minimize the risk for recurrences of this emerging public health threat.” 
 
Deciding not to re-run for office this November, Peake’s last bill in the 2018 session, which passed, sets up the “Joint Study Committee on Low THC Medical Oil Access.” It’s first meeting is August 29 at the Capitol. The committee’s charge is to “study the in-state access of medical cannabis and low THC oil” and make recommendations for how to achieve it for people with one of 16 conditions now authorized by the state.
 
The Lt. Governor appointed 3 senators, including President Pro Tempore Butch Miller; the father of a child with autism; and a sheriff to serve on the study committee. House Speaker David Ralston appointed 3 representatives, the mother of a child with epilepsy, and Susan McWhorter Driscoll whose website notes that she worked in Florida for two years to establish the brand as president of Surterra.
 
Peake endorsed Senator Clay Tippins for governor in the Republican primary this summer. Tippins, who lost, had promised to get the “cultivation issue fixed.” From its $100 million war chest, Surterra contributed $38,100 to Tippins’ campaign, $6,600 to the campaign of Stacey Godfrey Evans, a Democrat who ran for governor but also lost in the primary, $5,000 to the Georgia House Republican Trust, and $500 to the Butch Miller’s re-election campaign.
 
No marijuana product in any state that has legalized it for medical use has been approved as safe or effective by FDA. If these products are becoming a public health threat as the CDC warns, it seems fair to ask: is the movement to legalize marijuana for medical use being driven by science? Or greed?
Read Bloomberg news story here.
See Susan McWhorter Driscoll’s website here.
See Surterra’s contributions to Georgia political campaigns here.
Access Surterra’s website here.
See Surterra video here.
Read Atlanta Business Chronicle article about the start up of Surterra's Georgia business here.
 
The Marijuana Report is a weekly e-newsletter published by National Families in Action in partnership with SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

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About SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana)
 
SAM is a nonpartisan alliance of lawmakers, scientists and other concerned citizens who want to move beyond simplistic discussions of "incarceration versus legalization" when discussing marijuana use and instead focus on practical changes in marijuana policy that neither demonizes users nor legalizes the drug. SAM supports a treatment, health-first marijuana policy.  SAM has four main goals:
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