At 11 a.m., a panel on "seed to sale." After lunch, a review of medical marijuana's progress in Louisiana. LSU Health closed 2016 with a seminar ("Cannabis and its medicinal potential") in New Orleans, with panels not only for doctors and pharmacists but a new crop of prospective drug dealers following the state's 2015 and 2016 laws approving medical marijuana. Just a few months earlier, LSU Vice President of Agriculture Bill Richardson announced LSU could be ready with a crop by 2018.
Louisiana is among 28 states and the District of Columbia with programs in place or in development to cultivate and sell marijuana for medical use. The state's long, strange trip to get medical marijuana approved began in 1978, when state Sen. Tony Guarisco of Morgan City got a bill on the books to allow doctors to prescribe pot to treat glaucoma, chemotherapy and spastic quadriplegia. Nobody was ever appointed to its Marijuana Control Board, and the law never had any support to make it actually work — like making marijuana legal, for starters. In 2015, state Sen. Fred Mills — despite immense opposition from powerful sheriffs and district attorneys from across the state — passed a measure to task several state agencies to write guidelines for growing and dispensing the drug. In 2016, Mills authored another measure expanding illnesses covered by the medication (for now, only a government-approved cannabis-based oil) and writing the rules for pharmacies as well as where the product can be developed. It gave the LSU and Southern University AgCenters the right of first refusal for production.
LSU says it'll cost more than $11 million, and outside investors and contractors are lining up. But the state isn't anywhere close to a dispensary-filled pot paradise. Many conservative lawmakers wouldn't agree to Mills' measure unless they were promised it wouldn't lead to full-blown legalization. New Orleans, however, dramatically softened its laws on pot possession — getting caught with a joint is likely to result in a fine of no more than $100. In March, the New Orleans City Council passed District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry's ordinance to set up fines for all cases of simple possession (fewer than 14 grams): $40 for a first offense, $60 for a second offense, $80 for a third and $100 for a fourth and subsequent offenses. New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers still have the discretion to make pot arrests under state law, which carry a penalty of 15 days in jail and a $300 fine for a first offense, but NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said he instructed officers to stick with the city ordinance. (Guidry's original draft called for warnings, not fines, for the first offense.)
As NOPD adjusts, so may its history of disproportionate arrests. Shortly after the new rules for pot possession took effect, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report finding people booked with pot possession are overwhelmingly black, despite pot use being about the same among blacks and whites. Nearly 80 percent of people arrested for pot from 2010-2015 were black, and 94 percent of people arrested for felony pot possession were black.
Meanwhile, the weed industry and patients nationwide brace for U.S. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions — a staunch pot prohibitionist — to end marijuana production nationwide. In protest, during President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration Jan. 20, a group of marijuana reform advocates plan to smoke out the National Mall — four minutes and 20 seconds into his speech.