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To fix medical marijuana supply issues, House committee advances legislation to revamp program

Bill Feig
The Advocate

Louisiana’s medical marijuana program has seen a huge increase in demand. In recent years, state lawmakers removed some of the tight restrictions on who qualifies for the drug and who can prescribe it, but tight limitations on the number of growers and pharmacies that sell the drug, and a complex regulatory structure, have led to frustrating supply chain issues for patients.

Lawmakers took aim at some of those systems with legislation considered by the House Health and Welfare Committee on Monday.

Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun joined WWNO Host Karl Lengel to discuss the changes.

Karl Lengel: What’s the political landscape around the medical marijuana program here in Louisiana? 

Paul Braun: Louisiana was one of the first states in the Deep South to legalize medical marijuana. But to pull that off, every one of the stakeholders had to make some serious compromises to reach a point everyone could live with.

That led to some regulatory structures that, quite frankly, are pretty weird. Most of the regulation and quality control of the medical marijuana program is under the purview of the Department of Agriculture. That was never a good fit, as evidenced by the three years it took the department to get the program up and running.

There are also tight regulations on who can grow cannabis for the program, who can sell it to patients and what they can offer.

And for years there were incredibly strict limitations on who could access the drug and where they could go to get a health professional’s recommendation — the equivalent of a prescription for medical marijuana.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen lawmakers chip away at some of the limitations on what can be sold. Most notably, the state’s licensed pharmacies were allowed to sell the raw cannabis flower — a smokable form of the drug — for the first time this year. Before that, the legislature allowed any physician to issue their patients a recommendation for the drug and got rid of the restrictive list of conditions that would qualify a patient, essentially letting doctors prescribe it as they see fit.

Those changes led to huge increases in the number of people who could access the drug. And the limitations of the duopoly that LSU and Southern University's growing partners enjoy has kept supply low and prices high.

KL: What are the proposed changes that lawmakers approved in committee today?

PB: House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee (R-Houma) had a couple of bills that would shift the regulatory and licensing responsibilities of the program from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health. They also would allow the Department to enter a private partnership for testing the marijuana grown to make sure it meets quality and consistency standards. He also has legislation that would assess fees to pay for that, something that patients are frustrated with because the fees in Louisiana’s program are comparatively higher than other states.

Other changes that made their way through would increase the number of pharmacies that could be licensed to sell the drug. There are a few bills that propose different numbers — the largest proposed increase would boost the number of pharmacies in the state from 10 to 25.

KL: How are these changes being received by the legislature and the public?

PB: Many state lawmakers agree that the medical marijuana industry needs to change. That isn’t really even a partisan issue because we’ve seen Republicans who were the staunchest opponents of setting up the program in the first place come around and sponsor or support some of the sweeping changes we’ve seen over the last couple of years.

But you could argue that changing the types of the drug that can be sold and who can recommend the drug was the easy part. Now, lawmakers are trying to untangle the regulatory structure and expand the number of cultivation and pharmacy licenses. That impacts the pocket books of the stakeholders woven into the system, all of whom have considerable influence in the legislature.

So we’re seeing a lot of competing legislative measures in play. The ones that are most likely to succeed would make pretty small changes to the system.

All of that frustrates the public and many folks who have benefited from some access to the drug, but struggled with supply chain issues born out of those regulations.

There are plenty of examples around the country of states doing things differently and programs that aren’t as mired in the swamp of special interests we have here. That came up frequently today and will be a big part of the debate as we move forward.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.