Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James said the state needs to go further and faster in making medical marijuana available to sick Louisianans who are in need of the treatment.
On Wednesday, James pitched his bill to the House Health and Welfare Committee, which would have expanded the ways it can be consumed, the diagnoses that are eligible for treatment and the number of growers.
But after more than an hour of emotional testimony from members of the public, coupled with pointed questions from skeptical lawmakers, James decided to set aside his House Bill 1112. Across the State Capitol on the Senate side, Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, has a similar bill that’s advancing.
Mills’ bill, Senate Bill 271, is more tightly constructed than James’ version, allowing for less conditions to be eligible for medical marijuana. But it’s already cleared the Senate and is on its way to the House.
James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said Wednesday that he could see that members of the committee were uncomfortable with his version of the bill and that he would opt to work with Mills instead. But he didn’t say whether he’d be offering amendments to Mills’ bill.
“This is about providing a level of care to our constituents,” James said to the committee. “Don’t get bogged down in your fears about what might happen.”
Medical marijuana has technically been legal for decades in Louisiana; however, there was no legal or logistical infrastructure in place to allow for production or distribution.
Last year, the Legislature began that process by establishing a framework.
It gives LSU and Southern University agricultural centers first right of refusal to be the sole producer of medical marijuana.
It only allows for 10 licenses to be given to pharmacies across the state. And it made only three conditions eligible for receiving medical marijuana: cancer patients on chemotherapy, people who suffer from glaucoma and those with spastic quadriplegia, a type of cerebral palsy.
The primary focus of Mills’ bill is to expand the conditions eligible for medical marijuana. Mills’ bill would add, among other ailments: HIV/AIDS, cachexia, seizure disorders, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.
But James wanted to go even further, adding “intractable pain” to the list of conditions, which would have opened the eligibility up to a number of other associated illnesses like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
James’ bill also would have allowed for more methods of consumption, while not going as far as smoking marijuana. Current law limits medical marijuana consumption to a compressed oil, taken orally. But James’ bill would allow for whole-plant consumption, which would allow for it to be vaporized, in an e-cigarette, or baked in an edible.
It also would have opened up the production and growing of medical marijuana to more manufacturers, instead of just the state agricultural centers. Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said having a sole grower “puts all your eggs in one basket” and can prove to be detrimental for the state’s patients if there’s ever a problem with the crop.
State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, said he had concerns that medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and questions about whether this would lead the state to legalized recreational marijuana.
But several people testified that they or their family members are desperately in need of the medical marijuana for treatment of issues like pain or seizures.
“I’m just really upset you don’t understand about how many real, physical memories I have had,” said LSU law student Jacob Irving, who has spastic quadriplegia. “I’m going to leave if this isn’t available. … That would be a sad thing because I think I’m a valuable member of the community, and I think you should feel that way too.”
Michele Hall, whose daughter suffers from severe epilepsy, moved away from her family to Colorado so she could have access to the treatment.
“I’m begging you to please pass this law so we can come home to my family,” she said.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.
For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/