To Offer More Patients Relief, Louisiana Senators Vote To Expand Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan

More patients would qualify for medical marijuana use after two House bills passed the Louisiana Senate Wednesday.

House Bill 627 by Rep. Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey, would make medical marijuana available to certain individuals with autism, while House Bill 579 by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, would add glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe muscle spasms to the 10 conditions currently approved for medical marijuana recommendations.

Lyons’ bill was narrowly tailored to address more severe behaviors on the autism spectrum, including self-injuring behaviors, physical aggression, dangerous self-stimulation and inability to communicate to the point of endangerment.

Both bills were a bid to offer more patients relief as the state’s medical marijuana program gears up for production. The state Board of Pharmacy assigned medical marijuana dispensary licenses to nine pharmacies in April, and LSU and Southern University, who hold the state’s exclusive production contracts, expect to release their first products in September and February, respectively.

The topic of medical marijuana has been a hotspot in the Legislature for years, but some lawmakers have warmed to the idea.

Republican Sens. Dan Claitor, of Baton Rouge, and Jack Donahue, of Mandeville, detailed how seeing family and friends suffer through cancer treatments and find respite with medical marijuana use helped shift their opinions on the drug. Both lawmakers have consistently voted against marijuana legislation in the past.

Not all were sold.

Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, a stalwart medical marijuana opponent, challenged the legality of expanding a program that’s deemed illegal by the federal government. Determining where states’ rights begin and federal oversight ends has been a perennial issue in medical marijuana debates.

The federal government’s position on the issue is murky. In March, President Donald Trump signed a federal budget that included an amendment preventing the Department of Justice from prosecuting medical marijuana operations that are adherent to state law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been vocally opposed to states legalizing the drug.

Claitor said the 10th amendment and the federal government’s flip flopping gives Louisiana leeway to pursue its medical marijuana program without explicit federal approval.

“We don’t have to take every single thing that the federal government jams down our throat,” Claitor said.

Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, who brought the bill on behalf of James, said expanding the program would help patients with conditions they’re struggling to treat through other means.

“If it’s against you politically to keep folks in pain, then don’t vote for it. If you want to help people, and I think every single person in this chamber wants to help people, you need to vote for it,” Chabert said.

The bill passed in a 25-9 vote after Claitor added an amendment to clarify that medical marijuana cannot be used for workers’ compensation cases. While on the job accidents may produce severe injuries warranting the drug’s use, the expansion of the program still needs to be taken slowly, Claitor said. That same amendment was originally included on the version that left the House.

Lyons’ autism vote passed similarly, but with a more narrow 21-10 margin. Senate bills require a minimum of 20 votes to pass.

Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, said allowing doctors to recommend medical marijuana for severe autism cases would give hope to families looking for last ditch assistance. Mills, a pharmacist, has championed the medical marijuana movement and brought bills in 2015 and 2016 that established the state’s existing therapeutic program.

A third medical marijuana related bill, House Bill 823 by Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, extended the sunset on the state’s medical marijuana program until 2025. The bill passed in a 21-13 vote.

All three bills will now return to the House for approval of Senate changes.