Dr. Victor Chou is one of about 15 doctors who have already been licensed to recommend medical marijuana in Louisiana. He hears from one type of patient more than any other: Those suffering from chronic pain.
Even before Louisiana lawmakers said chronic pain could legally be treated with medical marijuana, Chou was fielding calls from patients who said they had the condition. Now, he estimates that about 75 percent of the calls he has received are from chronic pain patients.
“Once chronic pain was approved as a medical condition my phone blew up,” Chou said. “Nobody was expecting that to happen.”
People working in Louisiana’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry expect that the approval of this condition, in addition to PTSD, severe autism, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, and severe muscle spasms, could ramp up patient demand as the program falls into place.
A 2016 study by the Marijuana Policy Group noted that by adding chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions, patient numbers in Louisiana could increase by 37,343, to about 105,000 total. The Denver-based research group estimated that chronic pain medical marijuana patients in Louisiana would be able to generate anywhere between $3.4 million to $4.7 million in tax revenue.
The study, however, noted that the estimates were based on ease of access for patients.
Low doctor participation in the program, as well as rules that limit the number of patients each licensed physician can see, could impede access to the program once it is up and running later this year.
So far only 20 doctors in the state have applied to the medical marijuana program, according to data from the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners. Of that group only 15 have been approved as of June 25 to recommend medical marijuana.
Dr. Vincent Culotta, the executive director of the state board of medical examiners, said the board is looking at several factors to determine whether they should change the rules that restrict each licensed doctor to 100 patients total and require patients to visit the doctor every three months to renew their medical marijuana recommendations.
He said the board is considering raising the number of patients each doctor can see, or possibly lifting the cap. They will also look at extending the time limit, so a patient wouldn’t have to return as frequently to their doctor.
Since marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law, doctors are legally not allowed to prescribe medical marijuana. They are allowed to recommend it.
The legal risk of working with a controlled substance has limited scientists’ ability to research the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana in the United States. The lack of research is seen as one reason why few doctors around the country are participating in medical marijuana programs.
Although the limited number of doctors participating in the program is a concern, Culotta said the bigger issue will be whether enough product is available by this fall, when the nine dispensaries are expected to open.
Medical marijuana products can only be sold as oils or in a topical form under Louisiana law. It cannot be smoked or “vaped.”
“We don’t know what this product is going to look like,” Culotta said. “We are hoping that once it’s available there might be more interest, among patients and doctors, so that the people who need it most can get it.”
GB Sciences, the Las Vegas-based firm that has contracted with the LSU AgCenter to cultivate, process and produce medical marijuana, has said they anticipate having product ready by October 2018. The company is one of two authorized producers of medical marijuana in Louisiana. The other is Advanced Biomedics, a Lafayette-based company that partnered with Southern University’s Ag Center to handle cultivation and production of medical marijuana. Southern University’s Ag Center said they expected to have product ready by February.
In an attempt to address the current doctor shortage, GB Sciences is working with a New York-based firm called the Curry Rockefeller Group to provide an educational program for Louisiana doctors interested in recommending medical marijuana.
Ashley Mullens, the coordinator for LSU AgCenter’s Medical Marijuana initiative, told NOLA.com The Times-Picayune in May that the course will be offered online and a link to it will be posted on the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners’ website. She said the course will feature information about therapeutic medicine, down to formulations, so that doctors can know what works best for their patients.
“There is a fear among doctors that science isn’t there yet,” Culotta said. “Everyone is taking a chance with this.”