A bill the Louisiana Legislature has approved would shield state employees from any consequences at work if they are legally use medical marijuana. (Canva image)
High prices and a lack of access for patients in need have been the chief growing pains for Louisiana’s fledgling medical marijuana industry. State lawmakers want to address these problems, but backers of medicinal weed say proposed changes won’t come close to meeting demand that they describe as critical.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, has sponsored House Bill 697 to move oversight of Louisiana’s medical marijuana industry from the state agriculture department to the health department. It advanced Tuesday from the House Health and Welfare Committee but not until after lawmakers, farmers and prescription pot proponents suggested more could be done to meet the need.
“I think you’ll have a much better regulatory environment for the program” under the Louisiana Department of Health, Magee told the committee. “Hopefully, it will increase the amount of product available and lead to a much stronger and better program overall.”
The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and its leader, Dr. Mike Strain, have taken heat for the slow rollout of medical marijuana after the Legislature approved prescription sales in 2015. Magee said the approval of testing facilities is a chokepoint, which should be cleared once that task is given to the health department. The agency already conducts medical laboratory inspections, and he said they are equipped to handle medical marijuana sites.
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Adding more pharmacies, farms
Magee’s bill would also set thresholds for allowing pharmacies already allowed to sell marijuana to expand. With every additional 5,000 “qualified patients,” a licensed pharmacy could open another satellite location to sell prescription cannabis.
Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, offered an amendment to align the number of pharmacies to the state’s behavioral health districts, thereby allowing the addition of a pharmacy in Jefferson Parish. Currently, Louisiana allows 10 pharmacies to sell medical marijuana in Louisiana and has licensed nine.
Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, asked Stagni why Jefferson would be chosen over a Northshore district with higher demand for medical marijuana, and Stagni said the lack of access in Jefferson belies the actual demand. Hughes shared concerns that a new pharmacy in Jefferson would take business away from locations in New Orleans.
The discussion also involved whether minorities and women were fairly represented among in the medical marijuana industry as a whole. John Ford, a Black hemp farmer from Lafayette, told the committee African-Americans have only been able to participate as pharmacists, owning two of the nine existing sites. He is interested in converting his operation to a medical marijuana producing farm.
“I’m seriously concerned that as we grow this industry, if we don’t put equity language in [legislation for] the growth and expansion of our program in this state, we’re not going to give the proper opportunity for people to participate – Black and brown people and women,” Ford said.
Only the academic agriculture centers at LSU and Southern University are authorized to grow medicinal marijuana in Louisiana. Magee said he is open to expanding the program but said it would be best handled through separate legislation.
In addition to Magee’s bill, Rep. Joe Marino III, I-Gretna, proposed expanding the number of pharmacies licensed to sell prescription pot to 25. An amendment would require 30% of those pharmacies have women or minority owners.
A bill from Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, to allow 20 pharmacies was advanced as well. He said it would be a placeholder in case the Magee or Marino bills failed. Bagley, the health committee’s chairman, originally opposed medical marijuana when legalization was proposed seven years ago, but he said Tuesday that his own family members have benefited from its use.
Bagley also got an amendment added to Magee’s bill that would authorize home delivery of medical marijuana, which the chairman said would benefit the elderly.
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Demand continues to grow
The customer base for prescription pot continues to grow since Louisiana began legal sales in 2019. A year later, Gov. John Bel Edwards expanded the conditions for which marijuana could be prescribed. Demand soared after the governor cleared the way for raw cannabis prescriptions last year.
The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy reports more than 43,000 people have been prescribed medical marijuana in the state, according to The Times-Picayune.
Patients Angela Broussard and Valerie Fuller appeared multiple times before the committee Tuesday in support of and against various medical marijuana proposals. They repeated often that the bills being considered would only scratch the surface of demand and do little to improve access or lower the cost to consumers.
Fuller said her most recent medical marijuana prescription cost north of $300 per ounce, which she said was far higher than its “street value.”
Broussard said prescription opioid pills she once took were a fraction of the cost of medicinal marijuana but not nearly as effective. She also complained about the time it took to make the product available to patients, describing it as “slower than Popeye’s during the release of the chicken sandwich.”
The bills from Magee, Marino and Bagley advance to the House floor next.
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