There’s a saying that things in the South move at their own pace. Such is the case with medical marijuana in Louisiana, it seems. In 2015, both the Louisiana House of Representatives and the Senate voted to pass medical marijuana legislation — again.
Louisiana legislators approved medical marijuana twice before — in 1978 with Act No. 725, and again in 1991 with HB 1112, called the “Louisiana Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Act,” which amended the 1978 act. But both pieces of legislation failed to create a functional regulatory framework for cultivation and dispensing, and the program never got off the ground.
The 2014 effort to establish a framework around medical marijuana in Louisiana faced heavy opposition from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and Buddy Caldwell, the state’s attorney general. Caldwell testified against Senate Bill 541, which died in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee by a vote of 6-2. It was reported that Caldwell hadn’t even read the bill in its entirety.
“It’s troubling that the attorney general of the state of Louisiana didn’t study the bill but with the clout he has, (swayed votes) against it,” the bill’s sponsor Sen. Fred Mills told The Times-Picayune in April 2014.
It wasn’t until the Louisiana House and Senate took action to approve a comprehensive bill, also sponsored by Mills, in 2015 that the state’s medical marijuana conversation began in earnest. A 2015 Louisiana State University (LSU) study found that 60 percent of respondents in the state-supported medical use of marijuana at the time.
On June 29, 2015, then-Governor Bobby Jindal quietly signed Senate Bill 143 and House Bill 149 to provide access to medical marijuana for those with chronic or terminal illness and amend penalties for cannabis possession. But without a regulatory framework, people were still left asking “is medical marijuana legal in Louisiana?”
Enter Act No. 96. On May 19 of this year, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed SB 271, known as Act 96, to allow the state to amend and enact revised statutes 40:1046 and 40:1047 as they pertain to medical marijuana regulations.
The leader behind the legislation
For the most part, the push behind medical marijuana access in Louisiana has been led by Sen. Mills, a District 22 Republican who has been an outspoken advocate for medical legalization since the late 90s.
Mills graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, College of Pharmacy in 1976 and embarked on a pharmacy career that allowed him to make many connections in his St. Martin Parish community. He has served as a member of the St. Joseph Church Council, Knights of Columbus and The Jaycees, and is an active supporter of VFW Post 4215, American Legion Post 133, and the St. Martin Parish 4-H program. These community connections would open political doors for Mills years later.
In 1998, Mills, a pharmacist at the time, was appointed the director of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy, where he quickly learned about the lack of formal regulations around medical marijuana and began to come up with ideas to address the issue. He has served as president and CEO of the Breaux Bridge Farmers Merchants Bank & Trust since 2003, where he was named director two years prior.
In 2007, Mills was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives where he served District 46. Mills won his House seat as a Democrat, but moved to the other side of the aisle in 2010, registering as a Republican before winning a Senate seat during a special election the following year.
Sen. Mills has shown support for medical marijuana reform through his voting record in both chambers. In 2013, he voted for a failed bill to reduce penalties for possession of marijuana. In 2015, he sponsored SB 143 to authorize pharmacies to distribute medical marijuana, and in 2016, he sponsored SB 271 to expand medical marijuana eligibility.
During the 2017 session, Sen. Mills was one of 43 sponsors of a bill to limit opioid prescriptions and allow for pharmacists to fill a lesser quantity than the maximum amount listed on the prescriptions. He’s the lead sponsor of SB 55 to continue a prescription monitoring program for controlled substances and was one of seven sponsors of HB 490 to establish the Louisiana Drug Policy Board’s Advisory Council on Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education.
What’s the framework so far?
When Gov. Edwards signed Act No. 96, he said he was committed to ensuring the state’s medical marijuana program would have “tight controls.” He wasn’t kidding. Three agencies oversee regulation and enforcement of Louisiana’s medical marijuana program.
When it comes to regulation of the “extraction, processing, and production” of medical marijuana in Louisiana, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry has regulatory authority. The department is also tasked with collecting annual data that includes the gross volume of marijuana produced by each licensee, cost details for production, all subcontractor details, lab-test results for “therapeutic chemicals” of the cannabis and an accounting of pharmacy transactions.
Only LSU and Southern University agricultural centers may grow the state’s medical cannabis crops through approved vendors. LSU officials selected GB Sciences, based in Las Vegas, and anticipate they’ll be ready to start growing in 2018. Southern selected Louisiana-based Advanced Biomedics with negotiations still in progress. The Universities are limited to cultivation at one location, which is subject to inspection at any time with “reasonable notice.” The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry set 28 pages worth of guidelines for how cannabis in the state will be regulated and tracked.
The state will approve 10 pharmacy locations and track sales similar to the way pharmacies track pseudoephedrine, which is used to manufacture methamphetamine. The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy is tasked with regulating Louisiana medical marijuana dispensaries.
Patients can obtain recommendations for medical marijuana to treat cancer, Glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Cachexia or wasting syndrome, seizure disorders including epilepsy or severe muscle spasms due to multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s Disease or muscular dystrophy. Medical marijuana in Louisiana is allowed only in oil, pills, sprays, and topical applications. The sale and use of cannabis in smokable form are strictly prohibited.
The Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners sets rules for doctors, who are currently able to apply for licenses to provide “recommendations” for medical marijuana to patients in the state. This wording was a critical point for the act’s passage, as the original language had doctors “prescribing” cannabis.
As of this week, only two doctors have applied for approval to dispense medical marijuana recommendations in Louisiana. But proponents are optimistic that the program will be successful despite the sloth-like start.
Katie Corkern, whose son Connor suffers from seizures, testified in front of lawmakers Wednesday that she is disappointed in the slow progress, but patient and hopeful because she understands how important it is for the state to “get it right the first time,” according to the Associated Press.
Sen. Mills estimates more interest from doctors will pick up as medication becomes available and they begin to see positive outcomes.
“I think that physicians do not have an urgency yet to recommend this product because there is no product,” Sen. Mills told Marijuana.com in an email Wednesday. “I believe that once we get closer to a product being available, you will see greater physician interest. Patients will help drive their physicians to complete the approval process with the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners. And, as patients and physicians start seeing positive results, even more interest will develop.”
Marijuana.com’s Duke London contributed to this story.
This post was updated to include Sen. Mills’ comments about doctor interest.