3 May 2016

The Advocate reports..

The key proposal — Senate Bill 271, which would increase medical accessibility to marijuana — narrowly cleared a tough hurdle by winning approval in a House committee.

A related measure — House Bill 446, which would set fees for the pharmacies that would sell the drug — failed to receive enough votes in the state Senate on Tuesday afternoon but was close enough to be considered again. The Senate voted 25-12 but the House-passed measure needed a two-thirds vote of 26.

State Sen. Fred Mills Jr., the Parks Republican who is shepherding the package of bills through the Legislature, said he planned ask the state Senate to vote again on the measure and that he feels confident of its passage.

Mills said he was less confident his Senate Bill 271 would clear the House Health & Welfare Committee earlier in the day. Indeed, it was a close-run affair with the panel advancing the proposal on an 8-6 vote after three hours of debate.

Mills acknowledged the stiff opposition from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. The Louisiana Baptist Convention’s Office of Policy also spoke against the measure that would set into law the procedures and protocols for cultivating, handling and distribution of medicines made from the oils extracted from marijuana.

“It has become more of an emotional battle about the possibility that medicinal marijuana could lead to recreational use,” Mills said.

Though Louisiana long ago approved use of marijuana-based medications, no legal process was set in place to dispense the otherwise illegal drug that usually is smoked. Marijuana has been illegal since the 1930s and still is on the federal level. But 23 states have made the medicinal use of marijuana legal, and a handful of states have allowed the recreational use of the drug.

Last year, the Legislature approved setting up the framework for medical marijuana. Mills’ measure puts into law the regulations and conditions set by the Board of Medical Examiners, Board of Pharmacy, and the state Department of Agriculture, Mills said. For instance, only physicians who have no more than 100 patients using medical marijuana and who see patients using the drug every 90 days are allowed to recommend its use. The bill also expands to 10 the number of diseases for which marijuana-based medications can be used therapeutically.

Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone, president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, said that’s a job for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “We completely bypass the FDA approval process,” Stone said.

The sheriffs backed last year’s legislation because it was narrowly tailored, he said.

Mills’ bill this year, however, expands the number of maladies that can be treated and makes it much easier to get the drug.

It’s the first step to making the public more comfortable with marijuana, a path that eventually will lead to legalizing the drug, he said.

“We are afraid of creep and where we’re headed with this,” Stone said. “You may be harming people without even realizing it.”

Republican Rep. Dodie Horton, of Haughton, expressed sympathy to the parents who beseeched the committee to approve the measure and allow them access to a drug they feel could help their children.

“I’m not heartless. I’m just cautious,” she said. “There are so many unknowns.”

Should the Senate-approved measure pass the full House, it would need to return to the state Senate for acceptance of an amendment removing glaucoma from the list of maladies that can be treated with medicine made with cannabis oil. Mills said he agreed with the change, which was requested by law enforcement. New medications would better treat the eye disease, he said.

If legislatively approved and signed into law, Mills said it would take about two years before marijuana medications would be available for sale in Louisiana.

Voting for expanding the use of medical marijuana were: Reps. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe; Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe; H. Bernard LaBas, D-Ville Platte; Tanner Magee, R-Houma; Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas; Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans; Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs.

Voting against SB 271: Chairman Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe; and Reps Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Dodie Horton, R-Haughton; Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City; Julie Stokes, R-Kenner; Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner.