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Louisiana Can Finally Grow Medical Marijuana

There are few subjects that can stir up stronger emotions among scientists, researchers, doctors, pharmacists, politicians, and the general public than medical marijuana. Should it be legal? Should it be decriminalized? Is it safe? Is it addictive? Has its effectiveness been proven? What conditions is it useful for? Is it really the “wonder drug” that people claim it is? Or is it simply just a ploy to legalize marijuana in general?

These are just a few of the questions which surround this subject. Nonetheless, on August 6, 2019, Louisiana became the first Deep South state to dispense medical marijuana. Currently, there are nine medical marijuana pharmacies throughout the state which are permitted to distribute the drug, with the first product available in a flavored liquid tincture—a bottle containing a dropper to use. Here’s everything you need to know about Louisiana’s new—and to some, controversial—option for medical treatment.

Louisiana first legalized medical cannabis for chemotherapy patients in 1978. Over the next three decades state lawmakers added various qualifying conditions for its use. However, it wasn’t until May 2016 that Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law two billsSB 271 and SB 180which would allow for the medical distribution of medical marijuana. SB 271 amended an already existing program that would allow doctors the ability to “recommend” the drug, as opposed to “prescribing” it (which, under federal law, can put physicians at risk of losing their ability to prescribe medications). Meanwhile, SB 180 provided protections for patients and their caregivers for possession and consumption of therapeutic cannabis by amending criminal statutes regarding marijuana.

Mayor Adrian Perkins, Katherine Thomas and Fraser Snowden

In 2018, the governor signed HB 579 and HB 627 into law. These two bills further expanded the qualifying conditions for medical marijuana by adding a variety of new conditions, including autism, PTSD, and intractable pain. And while these laws solved a lot of problems for the thousands of Louisiana residents hoping to get medicinal marijuana, questions still remain.

What exactly does this law do?

The law makes it legal—at least for now—the ability to produce and distribute marijuana oils for medicinal purposes in Louisiana. It does this by allowing two locations in Louisiana—the LSU Ag Center and the Southern AgCenter—to grow marijuana and produce medical cannabis oil for distribution and research.

“It took longer than we thought and the whole time the other pharmacy owners and I had patients calling daily. These individuals are in real need and have tried every other type of treatment and nothing worked.”

Why did it take so long to pass this law?

The Louisiana General Assembly was at arms about how to produce marijuana in the state in a way that wouldn’t lead to getting the plant in the wrong hands. In the three years since medical marijuana was made legal to possess, Governor Edwards signed laws expanding what conditions could be treated with medicinal marijuana, but he and other legislators refused to pass bills to allow in-state production of the drug because they didn’t have enough security measures to prevent abuse.

Opponents of the current law—including sheriffs and religious groups—fear it isn’t narrow enough, saying the supply is too high for the number of patients and it could start a slippery slope leading to legalization of marijuana and a glassy-eyed population. Another headache remains is that marijuana is a drug that is illegal under federal law; which means that any law allowing its in-state cultivation is—technically—illegal.

Wait, does that make Louisiana’s law illegal?

According to federal law—the Controlled Substances Act—marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. This is the harshest classification and, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, Schedule 1 drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” For context and comparison, morphine, oxycodone, cocaine and methamphetamines are Schedule 2 substances, meaning they are seen as having some medicinal use.

There are efforts at the federal level to have marijuana reclassified as a Schedule 2 drug, but that progress has proven to be slow. So, until the DEA, federal, state, research and medical communities all catch up with one another, this will continue to seem contradictory.

However, in 2013, states such as Washington and Colorado began legalizing recreational marijuana usage, which created a quagmire for the Department of Justice. Ultimately they issued updated guidelines for how the DEA should manage conflicts with state laws regarding marijuana—basically saying it’s not a priority for DEA agents.

So since its legal (sort-of) … what exactly is it, how does it work, and are there any risks?

Medical marijuana uses the marijuana plant or chemicals in it—called cannabinoids—to treat diseases or conditions. It’s basically the same product as recreational marijuana, but it’s taken for medical purposes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recognize or approved the marijuana plant as medicine. However, scientific study of the cannabinoids has led to two FDA-approved medications that contain cannabinoid chemicals. Obviously, continued research may lead to more medications.

In answering the “how does it work” question, your body already makes marijuana-like chemicals that affect pain, inflammation, and many other processes. According to the Mayo Clinic, medical marijuana can sometimes help those natural chemicals work better “to ease pain, nausea and other side effects of medical treatments, as well as to treat some diseases.”

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That, however, doesn’t mean the drug is harmless. Medical marijuana is not monitored like FDA-approved medicines. When using it, patients don’t know its potential to cause cancer, its purity, potency, or side effects. Research has indicated that chronic, heavy users may have impaired memory, learning, and processing speed, especially if they started regularly using marijuana before age 16 or 17. So for some of the following medical benefits, there’s good evidence of its use; for others, there are plenty of reasons to continue conducting research.

What types of conditions are eligible for medical marijuana treatment?

In order to legally receive medical marijuana, patients must have “debilitating medical conditions” such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe muscle spasms, cancer, HIV/AIDS, wasting syndrome, seizures, epilepsy, spasticity, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease, severe autism, Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma. Estimates are that over 100,000 residents in Louisiana are eligible for medical marijuana.

Who’s growing medical marijuana in Louisiana?

There are only two locations in Louisiana permitted to grow marijuana for medical distribution. The first is LSU Ag Center, which will also study the medicinal properties of the plant. LSU has enlisted the help of GB Sciences, a private Las Vegas-based bio-pharmacy company to help with its growth and extraction. The second location is Southern AgCenter, which also hired an outside company, Advanced Biomedics. Both locations were approved to start planting seeds in late summer 2018.

Are you allowed to grow your own marijuana?

Not unless you are a part of the two permitted locations sanctioned by the state. Marijuana is still very much illegal in Louisiana. Growing pot is a felony that can carry hefty punishments of more than 30 years in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

In what form will medical marijuana be sold in Louisiana?

Louisiana law prohibits marijuana from being sold in any form that can be smoked. The medicine will initially be available in droppers, with three different dosing options. One mix contains a higher concentration of CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical with purported healing properties. Another will have a higher concentration of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that gets its users high. The third mix will be a balance between the two compounds. The doses are based on what little peer-reviewed research is available, since marijuana has been taboo for so long. After some time, state pharmacies will introduce the medicine in Listerine-style strips that melt on the tongue; with pills, topical creams, oils inhalers, and lozenges eventually becoming available.

Can your doctor prescribe medical marijuana to you?

As per SB 271, it cannot be “prescribed” by a doctor. It can, however, be “recommended” to you as a patient, but only by a physician who is licensed in Louisiana and part of the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners Medical Marijuana Program. A legitimate doctor-patient relationship must be established.

So far, only 100 doctors have received permission from the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to “recommend” marijuana to eligible patients—as many doctors throughout the state have balked at the idea of recommending the drug because of its social stigma or fear of prosecution (remember, marijuana remains illegal under federal law). No state registry or medical marijuana card necessary for purchase is required. And, in response to anticipated demand, a handful of specialized medical marijuana health clinics are opening across the state.

Will medical marijuana be covered by your insurance company?

As of now, medical marijuana itself is not covered by health insurances. This is due to the fact that cannabis is still classified at the federal level as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Anything that is Schedule 1 cannot be legally prescribed. As such, in spite of several states approving the use of cannabis in medical treatments, patients have to pay for it out-of-pocket.

Where will medical marijuana be sold?

Not just any pharmacy; there are only a few that are authorized to dispense the drug. One pharmacy will operate in each of the nine regions of the state established by the Louisiana Department of Health. The following cities will have a pharmacy: Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Madisonville, Lafayette, Houma, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Monroe, and Shreveport.

Locally, Hope Pharmacy—located in the heart of Shreveport’s Healthcare Corridor—will serve as the pharmacy for Northwest Louisiana. Owned by Jennifer Boudreaux, Doug Boudreaux and Chris Whittington, the pharmacy finally began dispensing medical marijuana on August 6, 2019.

According to Doug Boudreaux, the area had waited a long time to get this product to patients that have been patiently waiting. Doug is also president of the Louisiana Association for Therapeutic Alternatives—an organization founded by patients, pharmacists, doctors, and business professionals who worked to help create Louisiana’s medical cannabis system.

“It took longer than we thought and the whole time the other pharmacy owners and I had patients calling daily. These individuals are in real need and have tried every other type of treatment and nothing worked,” he continued. “It broke all of our hearts to see this many people in pain or suffering from seizures begging for help. We are all ecstatic to tell our patients that we are open and ready to get this product on shelves and available.”

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In addition to dispensing medical marijuana, the Hope Pharmacy will conduct research into the effectiveness of the drugs.

Who was Shreveport’s first customer?

Dian Snowden, a 77-year-old woman from Natchitoches, made the one-and-a-half hour trip for the grand opening of Hope Pharmacy—and she has no regrets. Snowden has had cancer three times—breast cancer twice and most recently lung cancer. And, as a result of radiation treatments and numerous surgeries, has residual chronic pain; however she is looking forward to managing the pain with medical marijuana so she “can feel more comfortable in her own body.”

Her only intention is to control her pain and just wants to feel normal. “As a psychotherapist, now retired, I was cognizant of the fact that chronic pain can cause depression and suicidal ideation, and medical marijuana will be a benefit to these people as well. Some patients struggle with side effects from antidepressants.”

What kind of revenue could Louisiana expect?

Experts estimate the North American legal cannabis market will attract $16 billion in 2019. Louisiana’s industry will only represent a small fraction of that. Prescription drugs in Louisiana are exempted from state sales tax. And since medical marijuana is a drug that is “recommended” and not “prescribed,” medical marijuana products will be subject to Louisiana’s 5 percent state sales tax on goods, with local sales taxes also applying to sales of the drug (in most places). Revenue will depend on whether these numbers are adjusted and how much is sold.

Early estimates of how many patients would use the drug in Louisiana range from less than 2,000 patients to north of 20,000. John Davis, president of GB Sciences Louisiana, said he expects between 5,000 and 10,000 will seek the drug in the first months of the program, but the market will mature to between 100,000 and 150,000. Likewise, a 2016 report from the Colorado-based Marijuana Policy Group estimated the Louisiana market for the drug alone could generate between $3.7 million and $4.7 million (assuming a 4 percent sales tax rate). But those numbers assume the medical marijuana program is fully embraced by the medical community—which in Louisiana is an open question.

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The Pelican State has taken a significant step in terms of medical marijuana reform in the last few years. In June 15, 2020, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law House Bill 819 which allowed physicians to recommend medical marijuana for any condition that they consider to be debilitating to their patient. The bill is expected to reinvigorate Louisiana’s languid medical cannabis industry. According to David Brown, former president of Sensible Marijuana Policy for Louisiana, the black market may be responsible for the low patient participation in the MMJ program. Those in Louisiana’s MMJ business believe that legal medical weed is just too expensive at present. Furthermore, patients in some areas would have to travel long distances just to get to a dispensary. But it seems that the bigger obstacle is the limited number of debilitating conditions that qualify for medical marijuana. In most cases, it’s an easy choice for those who can’t buy legally to go to the black market where it is cheaper and more accessible.

In 2021, Governor Edwards also signed HB 652 which removes the threat of jail time for possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana and HB 391 which allowed medical marijuana patients to use raw/crude and smokable cannabis products.

Despite being a state in the southeast, it looks like marijuana reform is plodding in the right direction in Louisiana. Medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1991 and criminal penalties for possession were even reduced in 2015. However, punishments for illegal cultivation remain tough.

This article was reviewed and updated for 2021.

Overview of Louisiana Marijuana Laws

Compared to other states, it’s interesting to see how first-time possession for personal use in Louisiana has quite a high limit before penalties increase.

  • Possession – Possession of 14 grams or less is punishable by a fine of $100. More than 14 grams but less than 2 ½ lbs get up to 6 months imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $500. Additionally, there is a one-time two-year cleansing period for first-time convictions.
    • Second offenses for amounts less than 2 ½ – up to 6 months imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $1000.
    • Third offenses for the same amount – up to 2 years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $2,500.
    • Fourth offense for the same amount – up to 8 years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $5000.
    • 2 ½ lbs but less than 60 lbs – 2 to 10 years and a maximum fine of $30,000.
    • 60 lbs but less than 2000 lbs – a felony punishable by 5 to 30 years and a maximum fine of $100,000.
    • 2000 to 10,000 lbs – a felony punishable by 10 to 40 years and a maximum fine of $400,000.
    • 100,000 lbs or more – a felony punishable by 25 to 40 years and a maximum fine of $1,000,000.
    • Sale and cultivation – Distribution (possession with intent to distribute) and cultivation are treated the same under Louisiana marijuana laws.
      • Any amount on the first offense – a minimum of 5 up to 30 years and a fine of up to $50,000. If sold to a minor, the penalties go up to 5 to 45 years and a fine of up to $100,000.
      • Any amount on the second offense – a minimum of 10 up to 60 years and a fine of up to $100,000. If sold to a minor, the penalties go up to 10 to 90 years and a fine of up to $200,000.

      History of Marijuana in Louisiana

      Marijuana’s history in Louisiana is quite an outlier. While it is presently getting left behind in terms of marijuana reform, it was actually once a pioneer in terms of medical marijuana legalization. In 1978, Sen. Tony Guarisco sponsored a bill that effectively legalized medical marijuana by way of a therapeutic research program. What was surprising is that the Guarisco’s bill was actually signed into law by then Gov. Edwin Edwards.

      1978 Medical marijuana bill

      At that time, the passage of such a law was quite an anomaly and that was proven in its implementation. Under Guarisco’s bill, patients with glaucoma and those doing chemotherapy for cancer would have gotten legal access to cannabis and a Marijuana Prescription Review Board would have been created to oversee the law. However, nothing came to fruition due to the failure of the Department of Health and Human Services to follow up in a substantive way. It was obvious that at that time there was still a lot of opposition from the state government, but this was not unusual in a conservative Southern state in that decade.

      Guarisco’s law though was a major step in the right direction. It was then amended in 1991 to add spastic quadriplegia as a qualifying condition. In 1994, the DHH then promulgated rules allowing physicians to prescribe medical marijuana. However, the rules did not explicitly legalize nor gave the department authority to address components such as cultivation, distribution, and sale of medical marijuana products.

      Medical marijuana framework and reduction of possession penalties

      Another major push came in 2014 when Senate Bill 541 was filed by a Republican senator, no less. A pharmacist from New Ibera, Sen. Fred Mills bill proposed a framework for a legal medical marijuana dispensary system in the state. However, SB 541 lost the vote in the Senate health committee.

      Nevertheless, 2015 saw the passage of two important marijuana bills – HB 149 which reduced possession penalties, and SB 143 which laid a framework for legal medical marijuana sales. Introduced by Rep. Austin Badon, Jr. and Sen. Fred Mills respectively, both bills were signed into law by then-governor Bobby Jindal.

      Since then, most Louisiana lawmakers have come to realize the benefits that medical marijuana can bring to their ailing constituents. One shining example of this would be Rep. Larry Bagley, a Republican who was previously opposed to medical marijuana. However, after hearing out constituents whose lives have been made better by medical cannabis, Bagley did a complete turnaround on his stance and went on to sponsor HB 819. Earlier this year, Gov. Edwards also signed HB 211 which protects banks catering to medical cannabis businesses, and HB 418 which protects physicians and medical facilities involved with medical marijuana.

      Marijuana home cultivation laws outside of Louisiana

      How do Louisiana marijuana laws compare with those in other US states? Check out our post on Marijuana Growing Laws in the United States .

      FAQs about marijuana legalization in Louisiana

      No, adult-use cannabis is still illegal in Louisiana.

      None. Home cultivation of recreational cannabis is not allowed in Louisiana.

      Yes, cannabis for medical use is legal in Louisiana.

      None. Although patients are allowed to possess marijuana, home cultivation of medical cannabis is still not allowed in Louisiana.

      Three pro-marijuana bills: HB 819, HB 211, and HB 418, got signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2020 and HB 652 which reduces the penalty for possession of up to 14 grams to only a fine of $100 and HB 391 which allowed medical marijuana patients to use raw/crude and smokable cannabis products.

      Residents are not allowed to cultivate marijuana, whether recreational or medical, at home in Louisiana.

      Only adult workers employed in a licensed marijuana production facility are allowed to grow marijuana in Louisiana.

      Conclusion

      Louisiana seems to be making good progress in its medical marijuana legislation, thanks to lawmakers that recognize that most of their constituents can not only benefit from it but are now also in favor of it. However, Louisiana marijuana laws at present only make it conducive for dispensaries to operate and provide adequate supply and it looks as if there are plans to reduce penalties for unlicensed cultivation in the foreseeable future. Louisiana also isn’t close neighbors to states whose recreational marijuana laws could pressure it into doing the same so it is unlikely for home growing of medical marijuana to be legalized soon.

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