Louisiana Medical Marijuana Program Expands

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Louisiana’s path to a medical marijuana program has been a tortuous and frustrating one. State lawmakers passed a law instating a limited program in 2015, but cannabis products did not begin to reach patients at the nine approved pharmacies until August of last year. There are still fewer than 4,500 patients registered to access cannabis products under the law.

After what has been an agonizing delay for many patients, Louisiana’s legislature has finally taken moves to expand the program. 

The program will still allow only extracts, tinctures and other such preparations — not actual herbaceous cannabis, either smoked or vaped. And only two “agricultural centers” are permitted to cultivate and process — one at Louisiana State University and one at Southern University, both in Baton Rouge and the latter a historically Black university. LSU, partnering with the private Wellcana Group, finally produced enough cannabis to begin supplying the approved pharmacies a year ago, Associated Press notes. The Advocate, the state’s biggest newspaper, reported the happy news that Southern University, partnering with Ilera Holistic Healthcare, finally shipped out its first tinctures and other products last month.

And now, under a trio of new laws that were passed in June and went into effect Aug. 1, the ability of patients to access these products will be expanded. At last, the program seems poised for growth.

A Trio of New Bills 

The most significant of the new measures, House Bill 819, expands the discretion of physicians to recommend cannabis. Rather than having to conform to the list of conditions named in the 2015 law, doctors can now approve cannabis products for “any condition” that they consider “debilitating to an individual patient,” providing that the condition is one the doctor “is qualified through his [or her] medical education and training to treat.” 

The 2015 law, known as Therapeutic Marijuana A, lists the standard conditions, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy and other seizure disorders.

According to the national advocacy group NORML, Louisiana joins a handful of other states — including California, Virginia and Maine — that have enacted similar measures giving physicians the ability to recommend cannabis preparations to any patient they believe may benefit from them. 

When Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill in June, NORML hailed it as meaningful progress. 

“This is common sense legislation that provides physicians, not lawmakers, the ability and discretion to decide what treatment options are best for their patients,” NORML deputy director Paul Armentano said in a statement. Continuuin, he said, “Just as doctors are entrusted to make decisions with regard to the supervised use of opioids and other medicines — many of which pose far greater risks to patients than cannabis — the law should provide doctors with similar flexibility when it comes to recommending cannabis therapy to a bona fide patient.”

Another of the new measures to take effect addresses the question of cannabis use in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. HB 418 provides immunity from prosecution to “any facility that is licensed by the Louisiana Department of Health that has patients in its care using medical marijuana.” HB 211 similarly provides immunity for banks and other financial institutions that provide services to state-licensed cannabis businesses. 

Slowly Moving Towards Social Justice 

As an AP account observes, these three bills were part of a modest wave of progressive legislation passed by Louisiana lawmakers this year. Other measures limit the use of solitary confinement on pregnant prisoners and increase the ways those sent to prison as juveniles can seek parole. 

Local activists feel that progress is long overdue in the Pelican State. In 2016, a “JustSouth” index produced by the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University sought to measure social justice across the Southern states. It ranked Louisiana dead last on measures of poverty, racial disparity and exclusion. The Research Institute’s Jeanie Donovan called it a “a grim picture” in comments to NOLA.com

Low-income families, immigrants and workers of color are worse off in Louisiana than anywhere else in the United States, the report found. The average low-income household in Louisiana earned only $11,156 in 2014. The Research Institute calculated that a two-person family needs to earn “$45,840 a year to afford basic necessities,” Donovan said.

These conditions reflect the region’s history of “slavery, Jim Crow segregation and continuing inequality,” added the Rev. Fred Kammer, director of the Research Institute. 

The other Gulf states ranked almost as poorly. Alabama placed 48th, Texas 49th and Mississippi 50th. Florida had the highest ranking in the region, at 41st place. 

Hardly coincidentally, Louisiana has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the nation.

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