Louisiana lawmakers have approved a bill that will expand the number of medical marijuana pharmacies, but give current pharmacy owners the near-exclusive ability to open the new locations.
House Bill 697, by Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, was aimed at addressing problems with the state’s fast-growing medical marijuana program, which has seen record numbers of new patients this year after lawmakers allowed pharmacies to sell the smokable flower form of the drug.
The bill was dramatically reshaped in the state Senate, after negotiations with several legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards. It was passed by the Louisiana House without debate Sunday.
Under the bill that heads to Edwards’ desk, the Board of Pharmacy would hand out a new, 10th marijuana pharmacy license in the New Orleans area. The state’s nine existing pharmacies could open a new location after hitting 3,500 active patients, then another location after hitting another 3,500. The only way someone other than a current pharmacy owner would be able to open a location is if one of the existing owners opted out.
The legislation would also change the chief regulator of medical marijuana from the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Magee, who was absent Sunday and had a colleague carry the bill for its final vote, said the reworked version of the bill represents “what is politically possible right now.”
“But public opinion is quickly changing and I wouldn’t be surprised to see greater expansion in the future,” he said.
The measure doesn’t touch the state’s two exclusive growing licenses. Only LSU and Southern have the ability to legally grow marijuana in Louisiana, and both have contracted with private companies.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said earlier in the session he didn’t support expanding the number of growers. Edwards, a Democrat who comes from a law enforcement family and opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, has said he wants to keep the current university model for growers, and pushed back against the idea of a dramatic pharmacy expansion.
Magee’s HB697 caps the total number of pharmacies for the state at 30. As of the first quarter of this year, there were nearly 30,000 patients taking part in the program.
Senators who reshaped the bill last week argued the state made promises to the current owners of the nine marijuana pharmacies that they would be given time to recoup their investments.
But opponents questioned why the state was tilting the scales and giving current pharmacies what is essentially a regional monopoly on marijuana. Sales of marijuana products and the number of patients both skyrocketed in the first quarter of this year, according to Board of Pharmacy data. Prescriptions rose more than 580% from the same period last year.
Louisiana’s medical marijuana program took shape slowly over a period of years after being finally legalized in 2016. The state initially only allowed the two growers and nine pharmacies to produce and sell tinctures and other non-smokable forms. They have slowly loosened the rules since then, letting doctors prescribe marijuana for any ailment they deem debilitating, and letting patients access flower, which is the most popular form of the drug.
The two growers have long warred with the agriculture department over what they see as heavy-handed regulations. The agriculture department has pushed back on the idea it is slow-walking the process.
Now, the Louisiana Health Department will be the primary regulator.