William Ligon

Now that the Senate and House have adjourned Sine Die, we’ve had some time to reflect on legislation passed, as well as some of the bills that didn’t make it to the finish line but are still on the table for consideration next year. There were several big pieces of legislation that passed that have already been signed by the Governor. This includes House Bill 316, which will allow us to update our decades old voting machines, and the “Patients First Act,” which allows the Governor to petition the federal government for Medicaid waivers.

While I supported House Bill 316 and the “Patients First Act,” there is at least one measure that was sent to the Governor that I oppose, House Bill 324, also known as “Georgia’s Hope Act.” This legislation eventually made it to a conference committee, having passed the House and the Senate in different forms. The legislation addresses the growth, production, manufacture and dispensing of low THC oil for medical purposes. The oil would be legally available to Georgia citizens who suffer from various medical conditions who receive a patient identification card and a prescription from their physicians. The specific medical conditions that can be treated can be found at this link: https://dph.georgia.gov/low-thc-oil-faq-general-public. 

Current Georgia law has decriminalized the medical use of low THC oil for a couple of years, however, it makes no allowance for selling the oil within the state. HB 324 would create a five-member Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee the sale of low THC oil by issuing Class 1 and Class 2 licenses for the cultivation of marijuana within the State of Georgia, as well as providing for the processing and dispensing of the oil. Rather than a bill that essentially creates corporate monopolies, I think if Georgia moves in this direction that it would be best to move slowly and carefully by entrusting this effort to our university system so that quality research is at the heart of what we are doing.

Personally, I believe the primary objective of those pushing for in-state marijuana cultivation are not going to be content with its medical uses. In fact, a lobbyist representing the recreational use of marijuana contributed to the final language of the Conference Committee Report. Though medical marijuana may provide certain benefits, if this becomes a gateway for allowing the cultivation of marijuana for recreational use in Georgia, then no amount of its good use could overcome the harm that its recreational use would cause. Furthermore, we are essentially allowing a federally banned substance to be grown and marketed in our state. Because of these reasons, I voted against this legislation.

Another bill that received a lot of interest, at least in the coastal areas of the state, was the updated Shoreline Protection Act (SPA). Originally, the SPA was passed in 1979 to help ensure that the sand-sharing system along Georgia’s coast, such as sand dunes, beaches, shoals, and the like, received protection from unreasonable human activity. That is still the purpose of the updated SPA. However, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the 1979 act unduly burdened land owners and proved difficult to administer. The prior method of defining the landward boundary of the SPA was based on the presence of a 20-foot or taller native tree and/or a pre-1979 habitable structure.

The language in the updated SPA marks a line 25 feet landward from the ordinary high water mark on private property, a line 100 feet landward from the ordinary high water mark on state-owned property, a line 25 feet landward from the landward most toe of the most landward sand dunes (because of the presence of dunes on our barrier islands, this would be the most commonly used method), or the existence of a structure built before 1979, or 25 feet landward from the crest of a visible rock revetment, bulkhead or seawall. The flexibility of these methods of measurement allow the DNR to accurately deal with the topography as it currently exists since coastal settings can vary significantly.

Some Senators questioned the high water line in instances of high tides and hurricanes, but the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the agency that maintains data and information relating to the shoreline, tides and environment, assured us this will not have an adverse effect on the shoreline but, rather, will help create more concrete measurements to ensure the agency’s proper jurisdiction and further protect our shoreline with the clarification of boundaries.

Property owners will be glad to know that the SPA update will allow minor activity such as construction of decks, patios, and porches as well as allow native landscaping landward of existing dunes so long as the total impact is less than one third of the SPA jurisdictional area. Elevated crossovers of sand dunes will also be allowed. Of course, all activities within SPA jurisdiction will require permits, but the process will be quicker. Any permits granted will be transferable, in the event a property owner sells his property.

As always, it has been a pleasure to serve you and I look forward to continuing to work on legislation for next year over the next few months!

Sen. William Ligon Jr. serves as Chairman of the Banking and Financial Institutions Committee. He represents the 3rd Senate District, which includes Brantley, Camden, Glynn, and McIntosh counties and portions of Charlton County.  He can be reached by phone at 404.463.1383 or by email at william@senatorligon.com