If Louisiana lawmakers need advice on how to develop or change our state’s marijuana laws, they need only ask what happened in those labs of democracy that we found in the other 49 states. The short answer is, pretty much everything.
Our medical marijuana law, which passed in 2016, puts Louisiana in the majority of the 38 states that are adopting the treatment in one form or another. The biggest issue in Baton Rouge is increasing the number of growers and dispensaries to get product to the consumer faster and who should regulate it.
State Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, said he was not aligned behind specific marijuana bills introduced by lawmakers this session. He said he will study the bills and see how they progress.
But Mills, the main instigator of medical marijuana legislation in 2015 and 2016, said he was prepared to increase the current number of producers in Louisiana by two – LSU and Southern University – and the number of pharmacies by nine. who distribute medical marijuana, if the data suggests it is necessary.
Mills, a pharmacist, said in 2016 that it took a compromise with Louisiana law enforcement and district attorneys to shape legislation to create a medical marijuana program. The result, he said, has been a “well-regulated product” that is safe and effective. There are few crimes associated with medical marijuana, he said, and despite complaints about slow regulation by the state Department of Agriculture, what was delivered to patients was safe.
“We had to crawl before we could walk,” he said. “We are exactly where we need to be.”
Lawmakers seem to believe the medical marijuana industry will grow here, but differ on how much and where. Some want the number of producers to increase; other bills focus on who regulates what products and how many outlets distribute. Some bills contemplate industry growth based on need; others to promote a free market. Some lawmakers think the Department of Health should regulate, and some worry about outlet availability and cost to consumers.
Pharmacist Eric Vidrine, who operates one of the nine dispensaries, said the key to expansion should be found in measured growth linked to patient numbers.
“You don’t want 50 clinics opening and 40 closing,” he said. Best to expand by need: Monroe and Alexandria, with less population, may be well served by what they have now; New Orleans, Baton Rouge may need to increase the number of outlets to better serve patients.
Vidrine said people looking for a purely market-based solution should consider what happened in Oklahoma, which operates on a free-market approach. This state, which has a population of 3.8 million, has more than 8,000 producers and 2,000 dispensaries. In some small towns, there are more marijuana dispensaries than grocery stores. The sheer number of growers and dispensaries, critics say, can create havoc in the market and confusing oversight.
By comparison, Arkansas, with 3 million people, has 40 dispensaries. Connecticut, with 3.6 million people, has four growers and 18 dispensaries. Approaches differ widely from state to state; Louisiana would benefit from learning from other states before adopting a radical change.
Louisiana’s medical marijuana program hasn’t been static since 2016. Products hit shelves in 2019. More doctors could prescribe by 2020. This year, marijuana will ‘flower’ – with rapid relief – has been added to the product list.
The growth of medical marijuana should be guided not by free market passions, but by data and best practices. So far, Louisiana has played their hand smart. Let’s continue like this.