Medical marijuana bill clears House panel, nears final passage in

One last legislative hurdle and a signature from Gov. Bobby Jindal are all that stands between Louisiana patients seeking medical marijuana and a legal path to get the drug.

A House committee approved legislation Wednesday (May 27) — without objection from any member — that would give state boards authority to create and regulate a system for growing, prescribing and dispensing medical marijuana for patients who need it. All that remains for full passage by the Legislature is a vote by the full House of Representatives and a sign-off from the Senate on some new amendments. It then moves to Jindal’s desk for a signature.

If the bill (SB 143) is adopted into law, those with a prescription could obtain the drug in non-smokable form at one of 10 dispensaries across the state. It authorizes one growing site, the location of which is to be determined. It also restricts the use of medical marijuana to patients suffering from glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia and for those undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. The bill contains a provision, however, that requests the state medical board submit recommendations 60 days before the next legislative session as to other qualifying conditions or diseases that should be added to the list. 

While the Louisiana Legislature legalized marijuana for medical purposes 1978 and then again in 1991, there’s no mechanism in current law that allows for the legal dispensing of the drug. The Department of Health and Hospitals was supposed to write rules for dispensing it nearly a quarter century ago, but the agency never did. Doctors can legally prescribe it, patients can legally use it, but patients can’t access it in the state legally. In short, the system lacks a middleman. The legislation (Senate Bill 143), sponsored by Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, gives authority to three state boards to set rules regulating a tightly constrained system.

The legislation gives the following three agencies rule-making authority: the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners would set rules about prescriptions, Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would set rules about dispensaries; and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture would set rules for a single grow site. Some members on the committee suggested a government agency should cultivate the product. Mills said the bill leaves the decision up to the Department of Agriculture, but added that he likes the idea of LSU and Southern University’s agricultural centers collaborating to host the cultivation site. 

The 10 dispensary sites located in different parts of the state would be established at existing pharmacies, where medical marijuana will be distributed — alongside other types of drugs — to patients with a recommendation from their doctor.

Eunice resident Michele Hall testifies on Wednesday, May 27, 2015, at a House Committee on Health and Welfare hearing in support of a bill to authorize the legal dispensing of medical marijuana. Hall said she feeds potentially deadly doses of numerous medications to her 4-year-old daughter to treat her epilepsy, when a single dose of medical marijuana could stop the seizures with almost no side effects. “Just give her other options than this poison that can kill her,” Hall said, holding up her daughter’s medicine. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, talks with state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, in the left, background. (Emily Lane, | The Times-Picayune)

Bobby Jindal indicated earlier this month he is open to signing Mills’ legislation legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries — as long as the industry is tightly regulated. 

“We just want to make sure medical marijuana is being tightly supervised by a health provider and it’s being used for a legitimate medical purpose,” Jindal told reporters May 8 at a meeting in his office. “I think his bill does that. I just want to make sure there aren’t any minor issues.”

Mills’ bill allows the state to track sales, in a similar manner to pseudoephedrine, in order to detect “doctor shopping.” 

A sunset clause added to the bill on the Senate floor will force the Legislature in five years to readopt the law. The five-year expiration is intended to give lawmakers the opportunity to explore the impact of legal access to medial marijuana and possibly re-evaluate the system.

This is the first year in decades that a medical marijuana bill even cleared its first hurdle. Mills sponsored similar legislation in 2014, but it was killed by a 6-2 vote in the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. The same committee this year OK’d the legislation without an objection from any member.

Mills attributed the shift to the fact that the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association worked with him to get the bill into a posture in which they felt comfortable removing their opposition. Last year, the group “vehemently opposed” the bill, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Mike Ranatza said Wednesday. 

Ranatza said a conversation and hug after last year’s hearing with a colleague’s daughter, who suffered from pancreatic cancer, inspired him to consider a compromise. 

Alison Neustrom, the 42-year-old daughter of Lafayette Parish Sheriff Michael Neustrom, told Ranatza she wished the sheriffs organization could find a way not to oppose the legal access to medical marijuana for patients like her. Alison Neustrom died a few months later, on Sept. 10, 2014. “She said simply, ‘I understand, but I wish that you could find a way,'” Ranatza said, emotionally. “I remember the moment.”

The Louisiana District Attorney Association maintained their opposition to the bill, but the group’s executive director Pete Adams said the district attorneys “are not stomping up and down” over it. “Our opinion is that we’re just not right there yet.”

Mills said some individual district attorneys have reached out to him, telling him he couldn’t use their names, but that they privately supported moving the restricted access bill forward. 

The full Senate voted 22-13 to advance the bill this year. The bill’s movement through the House health committee without objection doesn’t seal the deal for the full House vote — but it bodes well for it. 

. . . . . .