Dig Baton Rouge

‘A first step’: Louisiana’s medical Marijuana industry continues to progress

While there are multiple states with large-scale medical marijuana systems and two with legal recreational marijuana, Colorado and Washington, plenty of states are more skeptical of the idea. Louisiana falls somewhere in the middle, it seems.

Last year, the state legislature passed a law allowing the growth and sale of medical marijuana. In addition, a law lessening the penalty for repeat offense of possession of marijuana was changed, according to votesmart.org.

While it may seem like Louisiana is easing up on a drug that much of the country has been for several years, many advocates warn of thinking the fight is over.

“It’s a first step… for a working system,” says president of the LSU chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Emily Walsh.

Walsh says that while the bills are signs of shifting attitudes toward marijuana in the state, she isn’t of the belief that it means many are really trying to change anything quickly, or to have something like California or Colorado – lenient medical regulations or outright legalization of recreational use – in the immediate future.

Louisiana has actually had a medical marijuana law on the books since 1978 – Acts 274 and 275 from the 1978 session. However, the law restricted use to two disease cases – glaucoma and chemotherapy patients – and never had any substantive follow up.

According to nola.com, the laws put the onus on the State Board of Health to come up with the specifics of regulations, but the BoH never did anything. An amendment was added in 1991 to add spastic quadriplegia, a rare form of cerebral palsy, to the acceptable disease cases.

The amendment also added a deadline for the BoH to move the bill forward, but it was missed by two years. In 1994, regulations were made that allowed a doctor to prescribe medical marijuana, but there was no rules for cultivation or distribution, making prescription a moot point.

“You couldn’t do anything with it,” says Walsh, speaking on these previous efforts. However, after a medical marijuana bill failed to pass in 2014, the bill passed last year is getting real traction.

The law passed last year has been followed up with other legislation, unlike Acts 274 and 275. Along with House Bill 149 – a bill signed by former Gov. Bobby Jindal lessening punishment for repeat offenders of marijuana possession – Senate Bill 143’s signing into law in the summer of last year had a much different tone than the previous two bills.

SB 143 allows for the same three disease states to receive medical marijuana, The Advocate reports.

In addition, the marijuana would only be available as a pill or oils, with all of the THC – the active ingredient that causes a high – removed.

Nevertheless, the bill’s aim is actually moving along. The plan put forth by the Department of Agriculture is for 10 dispensaries around the state and only one cultivator. The first proposal was for LSU or Southern University to do the cultivation, making it possible for them to do more research as well.

However, LSU receives federal grant money, according to the university’s website. Growing marijuana, be it for distribution or study, is still a federal crime, despite enforcement being less severe in recent years.

However, on March 31, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, which has been tasked with formulating the rules for the growth of marijuana, released some facts and figures for growers.

The Department of Agriculture estimated it would take up to $700,000 to oversee production. This would be funded by $100,000 annual fee and 7 percent of gross sales from growers. These are the official numbers put forth by House Bill 1099, according to nola.com.

Walsh says she isn’t surprised by the moves made because the business for the marijuana industry has been so successful elsewhere.

She is surprised it’s taking so long, but notes that Louisiana has a history of being “less than progressive,” so she thinks this is a good sign of things to come.

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