Louisiana medical marijuana program advances, but progress slow and questions swirl over future

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, Louisiana medical marijuana program advances, but progress slow and questions swirl over future

Louisiana is preparing to launch its medical marijuana program later this year, although concerns persist about its long-term viability because of current limits on the number of MMJ products and treatable conditions, among other factors.

The state Board of Pharmacy recently awarded permits to nine medical pharmacies statewide to dispense MMJ products, and two state universities are working with private contractors to produce medical cannabis.

State officials hope sales will begin as soon as the third quarter, although industry experts said the launch could be later this year.

David Boyer, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project, said Louisiana has been one of the slowest-going MMJ markets in the country.

Louisiana lawmakers approved legislation in 2016 that established the current regulatory framework.

“We’re glad things are speeding up,” Boyer said, “but I think there’s definitely more reforms that need to be done before this is really a robust program.”

Louisiana has had several false starts since it first legalized medical marijuana in 1978 for people suffering from glaucoma and cancer.

Kevin Caldwell, president of Common Sense NOLA and a board member for the Sensible Marijuana Policy for Louisiana, is more pessimistic about the program’s prospects, saying that “poison pills” written into the law and lack of doctor interest make the program nonviable “as it stands today.”

According to industry experts, obstacles to a long-term healthy Louisiana market include:

  • Cannabis products can take the form of only pills, oils, sprays, and topicals such as transdermal patches.
  • Qualifying conditions are limited to debilitating conditions that include HIV/AIDS, cancer, severe cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, epilepsy and muscular dystrophy.
  • Patients can get only a month supply of MMJ at a time and must be re-examined by their physician at least every 90 days.
  • Each physician can treat only 100 MMJ patients at a time; exceptions can be granted only by the state Board of Pharmacy.
  • Only 15 physicians have registered for the program.
  • Some doctors reportedly are gun shy because of social stigma or fear of prosecution given that MMJ remains illegal under federal law.

Despite his doubts, Caldwell believes the Louisiana medical marijuana industry has a “fighting chance for survival” if a pending bill to expand qualifying patient conditions passes the Senate and is signed into law.

The legislation, which passed the state House, would add chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease to the list of qualifying conditions.

Projected sales

Based on the program’s current restrictions, Marijuana Business Daily projects the Louisiana market will hit $6 million-$12 million in sales in 2019 and grow to 10,000-20,000 patients with $15 million-$30 million in annual sales within three to five years after the first pharmacies open.

Louisiana Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Malcolm Broussard wrote in an email to MJBizDaily that the state isn’t in position to assess the market viability of the industry.

But Broussard did note the proposed legislation that would expand qualifying medical conditions.

As far as the low number of doctors interested so far, Broussard said: “We have heard from many physicians expressing their intent to wait until product is available before they complete the registration process.”

The state Department of Agriculture, which oversees MMJ production, awarded grower permits to Louisiana State University and Southern University. LSU chose GB Sciences Louisiana to operate its medical marijuana business, while Southern contracted operations to Advanced Biomedics.

Boyer noted the exclusion of cannabis flower from the list of permitted products. “That just adds costs to the product that will be sold,” he said, “and that product may or may not be what the patient wants, needs or can afford.”

Caldwell is even more concerned the state isn’t allowing a smokable product, which, he said, is how many people have used marijuana in the black market.

“I knew raw flower wasn’t something that the state would move on, but I thought a compromise would be vaporization,” Caldwell said.

Responded Broussard: “There seems to be no legislative support for permitting raw product or smoking.”

Pharmacy selection process

In addition to the restrictive nature of the MMJ market, there was a surprising twist in the selection of the pharmacy to serve the New Orleans metro area.

Rx Greenhouse, whose owners also operate a dispensary in Maryland, was so confident after being ranked No. 1 by a review committee that it issued a news release and talked with local media about its excitement to be entering the market.

But the state Pharmacy Board instead selected H&W Drug Store, which the review committee had rated fourth.

Sajal Roy, Rx Greenhouse CEO, said he was “confused and puzzled” by the state’s decision and plans to request the documents explaining the decision so “we can evaluate our next steps.”

“We certainly feel we were the most qualified and we were shocked at the outcome especially given the experience of the fourth-place candidate,” Roy wrote in an email.

Broussard referred to the state’s evaluation criteria, adding that he couldn’t be more specific “since the evaluation of character and professional competency during the board hearings is always held in executive session.”

Caldwell, however, was pleased H&W was chosen because it is a local business with deep roots in the community, while the owners of Rx Greenhouse are based in Maryland.

“I think it’s very important that this industry stay local and not bring profit back to another state,” Caldwell said.

He also noted that lawmakers have expressed their desire for diversity in the industry and H&W is owned by an African-American pharmacist.

H&W opened for business in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 1963. It closed for about six years in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the neighborhood. The pharmacy reopened in 2011 in east New Orleans.

Future uncertain

It’s unclear how likely Louisiana is to expand its MMJ program.

As more people see how others benefit locally and nationally by medical cannabis, the stigma of using it will decline, Boyer and Caldwell predicted.

But Caldwell said there remains a stiff line of resistance in Louisiana, namely the associations representing the state’s district attorney and sheriffs – groups that pale in lobbying power only to the oil and gas industry.

“They are so desperately fighting to keep this an illegal substance,” Caldwell said of the law enforcement groups. “It’s going to be very challenging to compete against those special interests.”

Jeff Smith can be reached at jeffs@mjbizdaily.com