While many state legislatures have adjourned due to the coronavirus, the Louisiana State Legislature continued its work — with social distancing precautions — and approved three bills to improve the state’s medical cannabis program. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed them all into law.
The most notable of the new laws — HB 819 — allows doctors to recommend medical cannabis for any medical condition the physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient” that the physician is qualified to treat. It also adds several qualifying conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain associated with sickle cell anemia or fibromyalgia.
Gov. Edwards also signed a bill to protect banks serving medical cannabis businesses from state penalties (HB 211) and one to protect physicians and medical facilities involved in medical cannabis (HB 418). All three take effect on August 1.
HB 819 was sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R). Bagley had been opposed to medical cannabis until he heard from constituents who found it relieved their pain. Now, he has become a champion.
His turnaround shows the dramatic impact constituent stories can have on their lawmakers. Considering reaching out to your state legislators about other marijuana policy reforms you care about.
If you’re a medical cannabis patient who has had problems with the program — perhaps due to the limited number of medical cannabis pharmacies or the lack of access to raw, flower cannabis — you may want to let your state senator and representative know.
Medical cannabis access a "game changer" in Gov. Blanco's final days
After years of waiting, Louisiana medical marijuana sales finally started on August 6, 2019. Less than a month later, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s eldest child shared that medical marijuana was a “game changer” for Blanco. Blanco was near death when medical marijuana access became legal. Marijuana allowed Blanco to regain the ability to eat and hold conversations, allowing her to survive nearly two more weeks — long enough to celebrate her 55th wedding anniversary.
Medical cannabis program improving, still extremely limited
While medical cannabis is providing life-changing relief to some individuals, in some important ways, Louisiana’s program remains among the most restrictive in the nation. There are only two state-licensed cultivators — Louisiana State University and Southern University — and only LSU has harvested cannabis. In addition, the state has authorized only nine locations to dispense medical marijuana.
Unfortunately, Louisiana restricts the forms of cannabis allowed — prohibiting whole plant (flower) and smoking. In 2019, lawmakers approved HB 358, which allows for vaporization of marijuana via a “metered-dose inhaler.” This is a step in the right direction, but ultimately, how a patient consumes marijuana should be a decision for them and their doctors — not the state. Many patients need the immediate relief smoking provides. Moreover, banning flower drives up costs, making medical cannabis inaccessible to most low-income and middle-income patients, and can result in cannabis businesses not being economically viable. In Minnesota, the only other medical cannabis state that bans whole plant/flower, medical cannabis businesses are still operating in the red years after they opened.
Louisiana provides for safe access during the coronavirus
Louisiana has relaxed some rules and regulations in times of coronavirus to allow safe access to medical cannabis in a manner consistent with social distancing. During the crisis, pharmacies can deliver medical cannabis to patients at home — or wherever else they are. And existing patients can get medical cannabis recommendations renewed via telemedicine.
Polling shows Louisiana voters support decriminalization and legalization
The people of Louisiana are ready to rid their state of the overly harsh penalties currently imposed for marijuana offenses. An August 2013 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that 56% of likely voters favor citing individuals for simple marijuana possession over arresting them, and 53% think the state should change its law “to allow marijuana to be regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol, for legal use by adults age 21 and older.”
Louisiana’s largest city has taken heed: In 2016, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to decriminalize marijuana possession in the city. Encouragingly, officers are by and large abiding by the ordinance (rather than arresting under state law), and statistics show plummeting arrests. For more details, please click here.
Despite this positive step, marijuana arrests remain rampant in the rest of the state, and racial disparities are alarming.A 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that although blacks and whites use marijuana at nearly identical rates, black people in Louisiana are 3.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.