High Level Health, a medical marijuana shop on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Louisiana takes major step forward to expand medical marijuana program

House votes to expand medical marijuana program to cover more diseases and get pot into patients' hands more quickly

BATON ROUGE, La. — Medical marijuana advocates won a significant victory Wednesday in their efforts to jumpstart Louisiana’s medical marijuana program.

The House voted 62-31 to expand the program to cover more diseases and to make regulatory changes aimed at getting medicinal-grade pot into patients’ hands more quickly.

UPDATE: The legislation is now headed to the governor’s desk

The bill by Republican Sen. Fred Mills, a pharmacist from St. Martin Parish, has received Senate backing. Wednesday’s vote sends the bill back to the Senate for consideration of House changes. If it gets final passage there, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he will sign it into law.

Lawmakers created the framework for a medical marijuana program in Louisiana last year, but regulatory hurdles built into the law have slowed its start.

Bill supporters describe children struggling with uncontrollable seizures and patients coping with horrible pain. They said the program only allows medical marijuana in an oil form that can’t be smoked. Local sheriffs and district attorneys oppose expansion, calling it a gateway to unfettered, recreational use of marijuana.

Rep. Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville, talked of his “precious daughter,” who has epilepsy and who has been unable to find medications that end her seizures.

“This bill will enable our doctor to have another tool to treat my baby girl,” he told his colleagues.

During the evening debate, bill supporter Katie Corkern sat in the back of the House chamber with her son Connor, who uses a wheelchair and has a rare brain disorder that causes uncontrollable seizures.

As he urged passage, Rep. Sam Jones talked of Corkern’s son: “Since we began this debate, there is one child in this chamber who has had eight seizures.”

Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Gray, said federal drug regulators haven’t approved medical marijuana, so doctors won’t have guidance on dosage or standards to apply.

“How is it that the doctors are going to know what to give to the patients?” she asked.

Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, voted against the proposal, saying he worried about public safety, “that we’re working our way toward legalization of marijuana.”

His colleague, Rep. Terry Landry, a former state police superintendent, dismissed such concerns as “nonsense” and “fear-mongering.”

“We’re really talking about suffering here,” said Landry, D-New Iberia. “We’re not talking about a gateway to a legal drug.”

The medical marijuana law passed last year will eventually get medical-grade pot to people suffering from cancer, glaucoma and a severe form of cerebral palsy. Mills’ proposal would add seizure disorders, HIV, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and other diseases to the list. It would remove glaucoma, in response to opposition.

The bill also would set a Sept. 1 deadline for LSU and Southern University to decide if they want to be the state-sanctioned grower of the product, in an effort to speed the decision-making since the schools get first right of refusal to grow the plant. It also would rework some of the regulatory language.

Mills has estimated Louisiana is about two years away from getting medical marijuana to patients. The state-sanctioned grower needs to be selected, along with 10 licensed distributors.

___

Senate Bill 271: www.legis.la.gov

House vote: http://1.usa.gov/1UU8xCm