ATLANTA — The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is making another attempt through the courts to allow public access to records related to the state’s medical cannabis commission.
In a Feb. 9 order, Fulton County Superior Court Rachel Krause upheld Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Howells’ June 2022 decision allowing Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission matters and judicial happenings to be designated confidential.
Krause’s order followed a request from the GFAF to overturn Howells’ order and unseal the Commission’s records, which GFAF argues should be subject to the Open Records Act due to the public health implication.
In an April 30 petition filed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, GFAF is asking to reverse lower court rulings.
An attorney for GFAF argued at a January hearing that the significant public interest should be considered when sealing records, especially for an issue as important as medical marijuana, which more than 25,000 patients are on the state’s registry to receive.
“This decision threatens the reputation and integrity of the judicial process by creating a rule that administrative tribunals are exempt from transparency, even when they are deciding the health care rights of millions of Georgians, and by further holding that no member of the public can challenge that rule,” GFAF’s Supreme Court filing states.
Last year, the Commission issued two Class I licenses — which allow growing, cultivating and manufacturing THC oil in an indoor space no more than 100,000 square feet — and four tentative Class II licenses, which allow the same activities but in no more than 50,000 square feet of space. The tentative licenses are still on hold as the lawsuits are underway from companies that were not awarded licenses.
GFAF is asking the Supreme Court to release judicial records related to those lawsuits, adding that the Howells wrongly interpreted open records exemptions allowed by the Hope Act.
The Hope Act, the 2019 law establishing the Commission, allows documents related to the Commission to be shielded. In part, it states: “All working papers, recorded information, documents, and copies produced by, obtained by, or disclosed to the Commission … other than information published in an official commission report … shall be confidential data and shall not be subject to the (Open Records Act). … Provided, however, that any contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative endeavor agreement entered into by the commission pursuant to this article shall be subject to the (ORA).”
GFAF argues that the courts’ decisions set dangerous precedent by reducing public access, stating that the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings/ Howell erred by not following the cannabis commission rules, which require the administrative law judge to review the judicial records privately and issue a narrowly tailored order that only restricts access to confidential information. Fulton Superior Court also erred by upholding that failure, GFAF states.
GFAF is also arguing to the Georgia Supreme Court that the Fulton County judge erred by not finding that the GFAF or any other member of the public has standing to appeal OSAH’s decision to impose a blanket seal, forever, on the judicial records related to the disputes over medical cannabis licensing in Georgia.
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