I first met Allen Peake three years ago when I began working at First Presbyterian Day School. Allen and his family have long been associated with the school. His daughter attended FPD during my first year of work and Allen frequented sporting events and gatherings at the school. At the time, being new to town, I didn't know Allen was a state representative. I knew that folks thought of him as a nice guy. I met Allen as just a school parent. When I learned that Allen had another life away from the school, one as a politician, my initial thought was that I should probably act differently around him. More... political? Whatever that was supposed to mean.
Over the past few years I have had the privilege of spending time with Allen, usually while shooting commercials for his business or working on other video-centric projects, and in that time I have realized that he is, at his core, a nice guy looking to help people. Allen is the type of person who you can talk candidly with without worry of being judged or outmatched. He is easy to talk to and he cares about what you have to say. I have a lot of respect for that.
Recently, I asked to sit down with him and talk about what life is like, how he got his start, and where he is today in the political world.
Who is Allen Peake (outside of the political world)?
The best description I can give you is that I'm a father of three children that I love dearly. They have been a central part of my life for 28 years. Now, I'm a grandfather of two, soon to be more, so first and foremost I'm a father and grandfather. I'm a husband, being married to Betsy for over 30 years. I'm in the restaurant business and have been all my life. I have a background as a CPA. I love to run, play golf, and SCUBA dive and now I'm in the political world. I have a strong faith in Jesus Christ and I'm a sinner saved by grace. That is me in a nutshell. It may not be very fancy or sexy, but it's me.
You have also been known to compete in marathons. How did that come about?
I've run one marathon and four half marathons. It's fun. The first marathon I ran I trained a good bit for. My sister runs a few marathons a year and Betsy's brother, Ed Middlebrooks, who works here at FPD, was a big runner at the time so we decided if we were going to run a marathon, we were going to run a good one. So we set out to run the Big Sur Marathon which is along Highway 1 on the coast of California. Interesting story about that: I got pretty bad cramps around mile 17 and had to walk a few miles. Around last mile or so I decided to gut it out and run it. I didn't run the race in short enough time to meet the cut off for when they began diverting runners away from the finish line. I was the very first runner they diverted away. I finished in an avocado patch with no one to cheer me on. I was the first one in the avocado patch. So, our family continues to tell that story and it's funny that the first marathon I ran, no one ever saw me finish.
How did you get your start in politics?
My dad was really involved in politics. A long time ago he was involved in the Georgia Republican party when there were only a few Republicans in the state. There has always been an interest in politics in my family. In my 20s and 30s, I was mostly focused on my business and raising my kids. I didn't really have a lot of time for politics. About my mid-forties, I began to have an interest and began to see that we needed experienced business people running state government. There were plenty of career politicians who were lawyers, but not many business people: folks who knew what it was like to have to meet a payroll and go through the burden of state regulations to open a business. I thought, you know, I think my skill set may fit in the political world and I ran for an open state representative seat against three other people who were more experienced and well known than I was. I really felt like I had a good chance of being embarrassed but thought I would go for it anyway. I ran with the message that I was a businessman and wanted to bring good business principles to state government. I think it resonated well with people.
Why did you find being a state representative appealing?
A lot of people asked, "Why not city council or county commissioner?" You know, a lot of the laws that affect your everyday life are drafted at the state level. If you think about it, most of the federal laws consist of things like income tax and don’t impact your day to day the way state laws do. That is why I had an interest in the state. I couldn't run for Congress as I definitely had no experience whatsoever and didn't think I could go that route, but thought I could and make a real difference at the state level. And I have, you know, I have been involved in some really neat legislation at the state level so far.
This is your 5th term as a Georgia State Representative. What has been your key to success?
I started out taking the same approach to politics as I have to the restaurant business. That is, it's all about customer service. It's about how you treat your guests and how you treat your constituents. When someone calls and has an issue, do I just blow them off, do I ignore them, do I not return their phone call? That just is not my style. In the restaurant business, when you have a complaint or an issue we want to deal with it. We want to make sure it’s right before you walk out the door. In the same way, when constituents contact me I want to try to resolve the issue they have. I want to listen. I may not agree with you. We may agree at the end of the day but I want to at least be willing to have a conversation. I want you to believe that I am accessible to you. That has been one important piece of the puzzle. The other thing is that I have focused more on building relationships with my colleagues. Finding out who I can trust and, hopefully, being in a position where they can trust me. That was an important part of my early development as an elected official.
You serve on the Appropriations, Ways and Means, Health & Human Services, and Rules Committees. Could you explain what they oversee?
Appropriations is how we spend money. This means, how do we decide the spending of the $21 billion budget of Georgia? Ways and Means is how we raise it. How we raise the revenue and what the tax policy is of the state. Health and Human Services deals with a lot of medical issues throughout the state. That was an important one for me because the Medical Center is a huge part of our community here in Middle Georgia so I wanted to make sure I was on the committee that would potentially have an impact on the Medical Center. The Rules Committee decides what bills go to the floor. It acts as a gatekeeper in that way.
Over the years you have proposed and helped successfully pass legislation such as providing protections for Alzheimer’s patients, banning texting while driving for all drivers, and authored the creation of Georgia’s first tax court. How do you find these topics for change or do they find you?
Well, It's interesting. Most of the time it's because the issue has affected me or I've had a personal encounter. For instance, texting while driving, I received an email from someone who told me that I had passed them going about 90 mph on I-16 while texting while driving. They told me that I was an embarrassment to the state of Georgia and what a terrible example I was to citizens all over the state. You know what? The person was right. It really was a wakeup call. The person really just called me out and was right. Before the texting while driving issue, I was worse than anybody. It finally hit me one day when I went a six or so miles down the interstate and it hit me that I had no idea what was around me. It was a personal experience, realizing that I was a terrible example to citizens of Georgia and to my kids. That kind of set things in motion that, ok, I need to deal with this and pass legislation. The Alzheimer’s issue... You know, I have a mom who just actually passed away last week, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia for the last five or six years of her life. So, that became a personal issue for me. How do we protect someone like my mom from being abused financially and being taken advantage of? The tax court issue, you know, I've had disputes with the department of revenue. I know how difficult it can be. I know that many times I threw up my arms and thought you know, it's just not worth the fight. So that pushed me for change. Lastly, the medical cannabis issue. I met a little four-year-old girl named Haleigh Cox who was suffering a few hundred seizures each day. When I met her I asked myself the question that every single one of us should ask: What would I do if this were my child? So, it's the personal encounters in my life that has pushed me to find a solution at the legislative level. That's pretty much how they come about.
How did you meet Haleigh Cox and get started leading the way for medical cannabis?
Well, I had a friend email me and ask if I would chat with the mother of a child who has seizure disorders. They went on to explain that there is a new cannabis oil that appears to be working to help children like Haleigh but is only available in Colorado. So, I connected with Haleigh's mother, Janea, by email. I get emails asking me to look into issues all the time. When Janea originally sent me the email I responded politely by saying "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I encourage you to contact your state representative and ask them to help you on this issue." Within a minute of sending this email, I got a quick response from Janea Cox saying "Well, I have just done that. You are my state representative." So, it kind of struck me that, well, I probably should look into this a little more since this is a constituent of mine. I began to hear their story that, the mom was going to move with the little girl, move to Colorado. This would separate her from her dad who would have to stay here in Georgia, separate them from their church, their support network, moving 1300 miles to a foreign land where they didn't know anyone. It seemed crazy that we would do this to our citizens. Why are we forcing them to become medical refugees in another state? That created some interest. Then, I met Haleigh. I met her at the hospital in the ICU and there was an instant connection with her. I cannot describe in words. The question that hit me: If this were my child, what would I do? The answer to that was: I would move heaven and earth. I would crawl over broken glass so that my child could have medicine that could stop these seizures. So, why shouldn't I do that for my constituent? That is what set me in motion. I was determined to do whatever it took, no matter what it cost me in my political career. No matter whether it meant that I would lose the next election because someone thought I was trying to push marijuana in Georgia. I didn't care. The interesting thing about this is that it freed me. I was no longer bound by worrying if I would win the next election or if I become popular or unpopular. It freed me to do whatever it takes to get this done for Haleigh, her family, and others like them. I think that connected with people personally. It went from "this is not a good idea. I'm not sure you ought to be doing this" to "Wow, this is something we need to do for our citizens." We didn't get the bill passed last year and we are still fighting this year because it's such a controversial issue, such a hot topic. However, we are making some significant progress to get folks like Haleigh and Janea Cox back home.
Medical cannabis (cannabidiol): What is it and what is it not?
Good question. There are many kinds of Cannabinoids in the marijuana plant. The two that people most know about are CBD and THC. THC is the psychoactive component of the plant. It is what gets you high. The more THC that you have in the product, the higher you get. CBD, on the other hand, has been proven to be a therapeutic part of the plant. It has some very real, healthy components to it. In particular, it has been effective in dealing with kids with seizure disorders. It's a fairly new phenomenon discovered in recent years. The key is to make sure you have enough CBD compared to the THC to nullify the psychoactive effect and have more of a therapeutic effect rather than making you high. That is what has been determined. The strains that are given to children have about a 10 to 20 part CBD to 1 part THC content ratio so kids aren't getting high off of it, they are receiving treatment for their seizures.
The Cannabidiol comes in a little vial that looks like a prescription bottle. The kids take this orally through a syringe or, in some cases, intravenously. There are some folks who smoke a high CBD low THC strain as well. What we are trying to push is just the cannabis oil because we believe there are detrimental effects to smoking in general to the lungs and so forth.
Other states have legalized marijuana, some even for recreational use. Why has it taken Georgia so long to pass use for medicinal purposes?
Well, there are actually 23 states that have full medical marijuana programs and 11 other states that allow the cannabis oil similar to what we want. The trend is going in that direction. Georgia is as red and conservative as states come. There is a lot of concern that, by opening the door to medical cannabis, we will move in a direction to become like Colorado. The assumption is that we will eventually allow recreational use of marijuana. I will fight to make sure that doesn’t happen. That is the furthest thing from what I want us to do. However, there is the concern among my colleagues and leaders of our government that we are opening the door. They don't want to open that door. That is why we have had such a difficult time moving this legislation forward in Georgia at this point. Governor Deal has been very concerned that we are moving too fast and are moving down a path that would not be good for Georgia so he has put on the brakes. I do think that we have come up with a good compromise, an agreement that we will provide immunity for possession of cannabis oil in Georgia. This would allow you to obtain the oil in another state legally, you will currently violate federal law by traveling back to Georgia, but once you are in Georgia you would be safe and protected from prosecution for possessing the cannabis oil. So we need to come up with options for how we would get the product from a legal state to Georgia. We feel like we have some good options to do that.
What progress has been made for medical cannabis and what is still on the "to do" list?
I think there has been a huge shift in opinion regarding cannabis oil. A year ago, no one was talking about this issue at all and now a year later we are about to pass a bill that will provide immunity for possession of cannabis oil. You will be able to give the oil to your child if they qualify for one of 17 medical conditions. So, I think we have come a long way and people have been educated. We are not allowing six year olds to start smoking weed. We aren't about to have pot shops on every corner. We are not going to be California and allow you to get a joint for a headache. I think we have come a long way as far as that is concerned. I think we still have some education to do. We need to teach the proper way to set up the regulatory structure in Georgia so you can have access to it. Should we allow smoking or not? Should it just be cannabis oil? Should it be open to any medical diagnosis no matter what or should it be limited? Those are some of the questions that still need to be answered.
What does 2015 bring for Allen Peake and for Georgia?
Well, for me, I'm going to continue to add grandkids to my life which is a good thing. I have a daughter that is getting married which is exciting. My youngest daughter is in school so we look forward to getting her out. We are almost full empty nesters, my wife and I, so that's kind of a cool stage of life we're about to get to. I would think, too, that I may be getting to the end of my political career. After this term, I will have been in 10 years. I think that's a good time. Depending on how far we have gotten on the medical cannabis issue, I may feel like I need to stay engaged and keep pushing it. You know, I don't ever see myself running for Congress or U.S. Senate. That's not my interest. The only thing I would ever be interested in would possibly be governor one day. It fits my skill set. I'm a former C.E.O., I'm a small business owner. A lot of being governor is leadership management. That would probably be the only future interest of mine politically. I think I'm probably near the end of my political career unless something opens up that appears to be a good fit.
For Georgia, I think we are going to see medical cannabis legislation in place, which would be a good thing. I think we'll see continued economic progress in our state. I think Governor Deal has done a good job as our governor the last four years. I think our Republican-led House and Senate have provided a good, strong, economic friendly environment for our state to continue to have growth so we should continue moving down that path.