Medical marijuana has been legal in Louisiana since 1991, allowing doctors to prescribe pot to certain patients. But sometimes-conflicting federal law and no state infrastructure for dispensing and regulating marijuana have effectively neutered that law, though it remains on the books.
On April 30, the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare voted to defer Senate Bill 541 from state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Breaux Bridge. That bill deletes the current law and replaces it with a comprehensive means of regulating the prescription of marijuana, including creating a Therapeutic Marijuana Utilization Review Board and coordinating authority with the state's Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy and the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners. The committee voted 6-2 against the bill.
In January, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would be open to medical marijuana "if there is a legitimate medical need" and under "very strict supervision." That month, the Louisiana House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice met with doctors, criminal justice organizations and reform advocates to discuss the "feasibility and effectiveness" of legalizing weed. State lawmakers filed several marijuana bills aimed at health and criminal justice reforms. Last week, however, a bill to reduce penalties for marijuana possession also died in committee.
At last week's meeting, advocates speaking in favor of Mills' bill included Drs. Mark Alain Dery of Tulane University and Karla Doucet, as well as Jacob Irving, a student with spastic quadriplegia and a member of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, told the committee, "You're going to hear a lot of opposition mostly from law enforcement. What you will hear is political, not medical ... [and] based on politics and based on fear."
The committee applauded Irving's story and courage. Committee chair Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, said, "I think this committee wants to find a way we can help." But opponents argued that the bill would compromise federal law under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a view that was supported by the state's district attorneys who also argued against the measure.
"It pains me to oppose this bill," said Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier.
"You're not the FDA," Mike Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, told the committee, adding that the medical exemption for smoking marijuana would create "problems for law enforcement with identification" and that the decision ultimately lies with the feds.
"This is not a medicine," said Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott. "It's a controlled dangerous substance and has serious side effects."
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell also spoke in opposition, suggesting that marijuana is a "gateway drug" and linked to "85 percent" of cases he's seen that also involved "some of the most vicious, brutal murders (and) rapes."
"We're talking about people with cancer where this is a last-ditch effort for (treatment)," Mills replied. "Do you want to throw (the bill) in the garbage?" he asked, whereupon Caldwell admitted he hadn't read the bill.
Before the vote, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, attempted to add an amendment that would put the bill into effect only if the FDA approved medical marijuana. That amendment also failed. — ALEX WOODWARD