Bill allowing medical marijuana usage in Louisiana takes big step, heads to House _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Breston Youngblood, a Columbia farmer, advocated Monday for Louisiana legislators to approve bills that would legalize marijuana.

An effort to allow the use of medical marijuana in Louisiana cleared a big hurdle Wednesday.

The House Health and Welfare Committee, without objection, sent a Senate-passed measure to the House floor for debate.

Approval came after a lengthy hearing punctuated with personal pleas from people, such as a mother who held up a bag of pills taken by her 4-year-old severely epileptic child.

“Give me another option other than this poison that I know is killing her,” Michelle Hall, of Vernon Parish, said.

Louisiana has had a medical marijuana law for 24 years, but no one’s been able to use it because of a lack of rules and regulations.

Senate Bill 143 would regulate medical marijuana dispensing and cultivation in Louisiana for use in treatment of glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia and for those undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

Similar legislation died last year in a Senate committee amid opposition from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. This year, the sheriffs group helped craft SB143 to eliminate law enforcement concerns.

And the full Senate voted 22-13 for the measure.

“I think we have found the sweet spot between patient care and law enforcement,” state Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, said.

Mills said he wants to name the legislation after Alison Neustrom, the late daughter of Lafayette Sheriff Michael Neustrom, who testified last year in support of the legislation as she sought help in her battle with cancer.

But the legislation ran into opposition from the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

“It is a fact there is a national movement going way beyond medical marijuana,” said Pete Adams, District Attorneys Association executive director. “It is a process in each of these states with medical marijuana and then expansion. There is an economic interest in this.”

Adams also said there is no scientific proof that medical marijuana is “a safe and effective treatment of these ailments.”

Under the legislation, the state Board of Medical Examiners, the Board of Pharmacy and the Department of Agriculture and Forestry would have different roles in developing the rules, regulations and licensing.

The therapeutic marijuana could only be dispensed at 10 pharmacies in the state. All of the therapeutic marijuana would be cultivated at one licensed location.

“This is going to take some time. This is not going to happen overnight,” Mills said. “It won’t be in the marketplace for probably 24 months.”

The committee amended the bill to eliminate any reference to doctors writing a prescription for medical marijuana, which is not recognized by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Instead, a doctor would “recommend” the treatment, certifying that their patient is an eligible candidate. It’s the same language that has been used in most of the 23 other states with medical marijuana laws to prevent physicians from losing their FDA license.

Jacob Irving, who suffers from spastic quadriplegia, urged the change because otherwise he said the legislation would be useless.

Several committee members said they were struggling with how to vote on the legislation.

Committee chairman Rep. Scott Simon said he is worried that people are looking at getting a foot in the door for legalizing marijuana.

“Are we just getting on the bandwagon of rolling and smoking attitude going on out West,” Simon, R-Abita Springs, asked.

Mills said the Legislature would be in control of what goes on. And, he said, the Legislature could stop the limited medical marijuana program if problems develop.

There is a sunset date of January 2020 in the proposed law, he said.

State Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Mansfield, said he does not like to see people suffer when they can’t get medicine.

“You are not letting them smoke. You are letting them take medicine — pills and sprays,” Cox said.

“This is needed. We need to relieve the people we can,” said state Rep. Harvey LeBas, D-Ville Platte, who is a pharmacist.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.