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Recreational marijuana in Georgia? Don't hold your breath.

There's a difference between what people want and politicians will do

At least one medical marijuana product will debut in Georgia next year if the GOP lawmakers have their way. But there's a long way to go before pot is fully legal.

Despite polls showing popular support, plus revenue success stories from pioneer pot states such as Colorado, advocates say that Georgia isn't ready for marijuana, for recreational and other uses, to be legal.

"We treat it more like plutonium than wine," says James Bell, director of Georgia C.A.R.E. Project — the Campaign for Access, Reform, and Education — an organization that seeks complete legalization of medical, industrial, and recreational marijuana. Medical access would be a step in the right direction, he says.

Marijuana appeared on Georgia's political radar earlier this year when state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, nearly passed a bill to allow access to cannabidiol oil, or CBD, a cannabis-derived liquid medicine that provides relief for children suffering from severe seizures.

Peake is better known for authoring legislation dealing with tax incentives and abortion limits. His CBD bill was named for Haleigh Cox, a five-year-old girl from Monroe County whose struggle with severe seizures inspired Peake. The lawmaker, who plans to reintroduce his CBD bill in January, says he plans to fight as passionately against recreational marijuana as he is fighting for CBD oil.

"There is such a strong sentiment that we do not want to become Colorado, so that it will shut down any talk of recreational," he says. "My strong conviction is that our citizens are only ready for cannabis for medicinal purposes only."

Georgia residents are probably open to some form of access to marijuana according to polls from WSB-TV and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. But the people and the politicians are two different things, according to Paige Figi, an advocate for wide medical access. She became a nationwide figure in 2013 when Sanjay Gupta profiled her daughter's relief from severe seizures in the CNN documentary "WEED."

"I'm sure the political climate in Georgia is not ready for full medical," Figi told a group of lawmakers on Aug. 27, at a hearing of the Georgia House-Senate Study Committee on Prescription Medical Cannabis for Serious Medical Conditions. The Gold Dome committee is supposed to study the issue for the rest of this year and make recommendations before the 2015 legislative session.

Whatever program the committee suggests will most likely be highly regulated and carefully monitored. And it won't lead to TV news stories of people sparking medicinal joints. Regardless of how much cash legal or even medical marijuana could generate for state coffers — Colorado reported $12 million in tax revenue between January and July — courts, local police departments, and governments could watch funding from marijuana arrests dwindle.

"No way Georgia is going to be adopting anything that looks like anything in Colorado or California," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML.

One reason, in addition to the apprehension or personal opposition of lawmakers, is because those states have systems in place that allow more direct voter influence over policy decisions.

Voters legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado in a 2012 ballot initiative. And California's broad medical access — but not full legalization — stems from a 1996 voter referendum. In both places, enough public signatures will put any question on a ballot. But in Georgia, citizens cannot put any question on the ballot themselves.

Of the 48 states without legalized marijuana, Georgia is among the last that will move in that direction, St. Pierre says. When the state does decide to move ahead, it will be pulled by the momentum of other states — not Georgia's grass roots.

In three to five years, St. Pierre predicts, some Georgians might be able to access some CBD-rich medicines, but not the whole plant. The recreational front "is a whole different discussion," St. Pierre says.

If Florida voters approve medical marijuana in a November referendum, Georgia advocates, and perhaps politicians, would consider exploring the issue, he says.

But overall, "California is the determining state" on the direction of marijuana policy in the country, and maybe in the whole hemisphere, St. Pierre says. Voters there in 2010 rejected recreational marijuana, but advocates are looking to try again in 2016.

Still, Bell is optimistic that eventually medical, and then recreational, marijuana will be available in Georgia. If not that, then perhaps decriminalization — he expects state lawmakers to introduce legislation in January to debate decriminalizing marijuana possession.

"Somebody's got to be last," he says. "I don't think we're going to be last."