It’s easy enough to think of Louisiana as just another Southern state with medical cannabis laws on the books and no actual dispensaries or patients. But look a little closer — the state is making progress toward a limited but meaningful medical program. Undeterred by the warnings of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, marijuana growers, distributors and banks are shifting into place to prepare for the program’s launch before the end of 2018.
While nothing close to the inclusive medical programs in states like California and Washington, Louisiana’s medical cannabis restrictions are also a far cry from those of states like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee, which are so limited that they’re practically non-existent.
The program includes a lot of unnecessary restrictions: Louisiana prohibits smokable cannabis, home cultivation is outlawed and the number of dispensaries is limited to 10 (one for every half million people in the state). Growing privileges belong exclusively to Louisiana State University and Southern University and physicians can give recommendations for 10 severe conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
Despite these restrictions, compared to the Bayou State’s neighbors, Louisiana is making real progress. Mississippi, for instance, has only legalized cannabis with less than 0.5 percent THC for the treatment of epilepsy and has no state-licensed dispensaries. Texas and Alabama are similarly hemmed in.
Part of Louisiana’s relative success comes from its many reform-minded legislators who see the initial medical program as a base to improve. For example, Rep. Ted James is working to expand the list of conditions for which cannabis can be recommended to include glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, severe muscle spasms, intractable pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. This would continue a pattern of gradual expansion of the law: a 2016 amendment expanded the number of allowable conditions from three to 10.
“We faced minimal opposition from the far right,” says James, a Democrat from Baton Rouge.
The push to add more acceptable conditions is as much economic as it is medical. Some have raised concerns that medical cannabis won’t be a fiscally viable industry in Lousiana without allowing for more patients. As James points out, the program is also a revenue generator for the two universities permitted to grow.
“We [the legislature] have little interest in raising revenue, and some see the cannabis program as a means to raise revenue for Southern [University] and LSU,” he explains.
Some members are pushing the envelope further, with bills to both decriminalize and legalize introduced this session. For example, Rep. Edmond Jordan introduced a full legalization bill — which is unlikely to pass — but he says he’s seen that a lot of his colleagues agree with him on the policy, even if they aren’t willing to vote for it.
“Privately, I’ve had several members tell me they would be for it, but the politics aren’t right for it yet,” says Jordan. “They’ve told me, ‘I really understand what you are doing, I support what you’re doing.’ But support doesn’t mean you’re going to vote for it.”
Jordan says he believes legal cannabis can fix Louisiana’s $650 million deficit.
“I believe we could generate well over $200 million per year [with legal cannabis],” says Jordan. “With New Orleans being a tourist attraction already, I just think it’s the right thing.”
Speaking of New Orleans, the home of Mardi Gras has already decriminalized cannabis, as has Baton Rouge. In May, the city also hosted the industry conference MJBizCon NEXT, which featured a keynote speech from “Shark Tank” investor Kevin O’Leary, further establishing the city as a new frontier for legal marijuana.
Jordan believes the normalizing attitudes in New Orleans add to the case for full legalization in Lousiana. After all, if cannabis is already being used, and penalties are reduced, why not allow it to add to the state coffers?
“What you might end up with is de facto legalization without the taxation part,” says Jordan.
As Louisiana’s medical program takes shape, it will be joined by Arkansas, its neighbor to the north. While dispensaries are not yet operational in Arkansas, when they open, they will accept patients of around 20 conditions, and the state Department of Health may add to this list without approval from the legislature. Florida’s program is also growing as well, with more than 100,000 patients having signed up as of April.
While the region still lags behind the other areas of the country, medical cannabis is gradually expanding in the Deep South. As laws loosen up around the U.S., Louisiana is showing that the South may be conservative, but scientific studies, criminal justice reform and economic impacts can eventually move hearts and minds anywhere in the country.
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Originally published in Issue 32 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE