Poll: Nationwide marijuana legalization inevitable _lowres

The LSU and Southern University Agricultural Centers have been granted first shot at being the sole growers and producers of medical marijuana in Louisiana.

ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO

The LSU and Southern University Agricultural Centers have been granted first crack at being the sole growers and producers of medical marijuana in Louisiana.

Under a new law the Legislature approved earlier this year, the AgCenters were granted the first right of refusal to hold a state-sanctioned monopoly on production of legal medical marijuana. The monopoly would go by public bid to a single provider if the universities refuse.

Designating the two facilities makes some sense. Who better than the two centers to research a new Louisiana crop, select the best varieties for the state’s soils and climate, and figure out the best methods to extract the components of cannabis thought to be beneficial?

But drug policy experts, advocates, university marijuana researchers and those who track the states’ marijuana legalization efforts say having public universities grow and refine marijuana for commercial medical use to the extent Louisiana’s new law anticipates is unprecedented.

LSU and Southern, as publicly funded institutions, would be entering a legal gray area that could risk their federal research funding.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory,” said Karmen Hanson, program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures Health Program that tracks state marijuana laws.

Sen. Fred Mills Jr., R-Parks, the law’s chief author, said the final language, including the amendment adding the Southern and LSU AgCenters, came as a compromise with the Jindal administration and law enforcement.

Mills said he was trying to find a balance between the bill’s medical focus and law enforcement officials’ concerns about the proliferation of recreational marijuana use.

“What I realized is if I didn’t work with a lot of different people that had a lot of different thoughts, the bill could have never passed,” Mills said.

He said the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association was a major force in shaping the law and its restrictions on medical marijuana’s production and distribution in the state.

Michael Ranatza, the sheriff’s association’s executive director, said his group agreed not to oppose the bill with the changes, including that private operations could not grow marijuana and only a central source would.

“What we did is we attempted to make the law one of the toughest medical marijuana laws in America. What we wanted to do for the sake of those people who really need medical marijuana, we wanted to find a way to work with the medical community to do just that,” Ranatza said.

Under the new Louisiana law, the state will allow 10 pharmacy locations to be licensed statewide to provide marijuana for the treatment of glaucoma and symptoms from cancer chemotherapy or spastic quadriplegia. Patients will need a prescription from a physician.

The AgCenters are charged with growing raw marijuana and refining an extract or oil — not a product that can be smoked. The marijuana product must have the lowest possible concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is the psychoactive component that creates a “high” for users.

The marijuana will have to be grown in one facility for the entire state in a publicly disclosed location.

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, who has tried to temper expectations for a quick application of the new law but who also has been upbeat about the prospects, said he envisions a highly secure growing building with a separate area for processing.

Despite these visions, the basis for the legal uncertainty some see for LSU and Southern is that the federal government lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug. That puts marijuana on par with heroin and deems it not to have a medical value but a high potential for abuse.

As the nation’s anti-drug policies have become enmeshed in the fabric of society, from mandates for drug-free workplaces at public institutions to prohibitions on transporting federally controlled substances across state lines, this web of laws presents all sorts of roadblocks for public institutions that don’t have federal blessing, these experts said.

“I really don’t see a situation where a public university would grow commercial cannabis, which is still illegal under federal law, so I wish I had more hope for Louisiana’s medical marijuana law,” said Amanda Reiman, a social welfare professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance.

“I am glad they are discussing it, but I think they will change the (law’s) language,” she said.

Her nonprofit advocacy group, which seeks to decriminalize drugs so they have a public health emphasis, supports medical marijuana and an end to marijuana prohibitions.

Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, who takes a decidedly more skeptical view of the push for medical marijuana and feels more research is needed, has the same doubts as Reiman.

“I think that it’s going to be difficult for Louisiana to pull this off, to be honest,” said Sabet, who has advised Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama on drug policy.

In 2013, Maryland adopted a restrictive medical marijuana law that would have had the state’s medical schools dispensing marijuana. None of those schools would commit to do so, however.

Dan Morhaim, a Democratic delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and a chief proponent of medical marijuana, said he believes some of the hesitancy came from fear of federal sanctions.

“That (federal sanction) hasn’t happened, but that is the fear because technically that is possible,” said Morhaim, a Baltimore, Maryland, emergency room doctor and part-time associate at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Officials with some of Maryland’s schools said they didn’t want to commit until they knew what the new law’s rules would be.

The LSU and Southern AgCenters receive federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between 2011 and 2014, the Southern AgCenter received $23.3 million while the LSU AgCenter received $68.6 million, USDA spokeswoman Catherine Cochran said.

Strain, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said he has been told that LSU officials do not think AgCenter involvement in growing marijuana would be an issue for their federal funding.

“They are very positive on the project. They have interest in the project, and I think they’re just trying to make sure it’s something they are going to be allowed to do,” Strain said earlier this month.

Veronica Mosgrove, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Agriculture & Forestry, said last week that LSU may look to an unidentified “affiliate” to process the marijuana.

LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson is taking a wait-and-see approach as Strain’s department, the state Board of Pharmacy and the State Board of Medical Examiners create rules to apply to the new law.

“Once the guidelines have been established, we will consult with LSU’s president and Board of Supervisors to determine what our involvement may be,” Richardson said.

Adell Brown Jr., interim chancellor of the Southern University AgCenter, said officials are trying to gather data, “doing our research.”

“What you do, why you grow, what you sell,” Brown said.

He added that officials see medical marijuana as a potential positive.

“We can’t afford to close any doors on any good opportunity, but, at the same time, we can’t be rash and move forward without doing the due diligence,” Brown said.

Since 1996, 23 states, the District of Columbia and the territory of Guam have adopted comprehensive medical marijuana laws. Another 15 states, including Louisiana, have adopted more limited-use, low-THC medical marijuana laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition, Colorado and Washington approved adult recreational use in 2012, and Alaska and Oregon are finalizing recreational-use laws.

Colorado and some other states opened up growing and selling to the free market through regulated, licensed companies. At the end of 2014, Colorado had nearly 750 companies holding licenses to grow medical marijuana, though it is not clear how many were operating, a state annual report says.

During the wave of states authorizing more restrictive, low-THC medical marijuana laws, some, like Tennessee and Mississippi, have proposed having universities grow marijuana for medical use.

This would appear to be similar to Louisiana’s model, but that marijuana production will happen as part of federally approved clinical trials for specific illnesses, not for prescription-based use.

The University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy, which is working on implementing the 2014 law with Ole Miss’s medical school in Jackson, has been growing marijuana since 1968.

Ole Miss grows marijuana for the National Institute of Drug Abuse under a contract as the sole source for federal marijuana research.

In the wake of states’ legalization efforts, the Obama administration has issued a series of legal memos providing guidance about federal law enforcement priorities.

These memos have been read by some to provide assurances for businesses and others operating under a well-regulated state program, but the memos are not the same as law and haven’t, for instance, been enough to convince Colorado bankers worried about federal anti-money laundering laws to offer services to legal marijuana businesses in that state.

Ryan Vandrey, associate professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the assurances boil down to the word of a few people, not a guarantee.

“So when you are a big public university that relies on federal support, that’s a huge risk to take,” said Vandrey, who has been researching marijuana for 15 years.

Neither Southern nor LSU has contacted the USDA about Louisiana’s new law, USDA spokeswoman Cochran said. If USDA were contacted, it would conduct a review with other agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Until that time, it would not be proper to speculate on any possible implications,” Cochran said.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman declined to speculate on the new state law.

In Maryland, Morhaim and other delegates revamped that state’s 2013 medical marijuana law, which was passed as a political compromise with more skittish state officials but did create a rule-making medical marijuana commission.

“We passed it to get it through the eye of the needle and have something instead of nothing. The next year, we revamped it and revamped it again,” Morhaim said.

State law in Maryland now allows private, licensed marijuana production and distribution. Morhaim said Maryland should have medical marijuana available in about a year.

Mills, the senator who sponsored the Louisiana law, said he is aware of the pitfalls some have pointed out but plans a closed-door meeting next month among all the state and federal parties.

He said the new law is better seen as a framework that the rule-making process will fill in and that can be changed as need arises.

“What I have tried to get everyone to understand is that it is not the final document but a template. If we do need changes, my promise has been to be very transparent and wide open with discussion,” Mills said.

Marsha Shuler, of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.