While Louisiana’s first batch of medical marijuana is expected to begin growing next week with product available as early as November, it may be months longer before many patients are able to get the drug.
Some of the nine pharmacies licensed across the state likely won’t be open until December or January at the earliest, and relatively few doctors — 40 in the state so far — appear willing to recommend the drug to patients. Also, those doctors are currently hampered by a 100-patient cap that would mean about 4,000 people at the most could get treatment. Even that number may not get treatment because not all 40 doctors are expected to take on medical marijuana patients immediately.
Lawmakers this summer expanded the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana to include chronic pain and other conditions, a move that was expected to greatly increase patient demand for the drug.
The state Board of Medical Examiners has discussed loosening its rules, and is expected to take up the 100-patient cap and other issues at its September meeting. Dr. Vincent Culotta, executive director of the board, said any changes would go into effect immediately.
GB Sciences was given preliminary approval on Friday from state agriculture regulators to begin production in a former Pepsi distribution center in south Baton Rouge using a small temporary pod designed to get product on the shelves quickly.
The company will begin growing plants from tissue cultures for extraction and formulation for patients sometime next week, said Frances Gould, a spokeswoman for the LSU AgCenter. The AgCenter, under state authorizaton, contracted with GB Sciences as its grower for a non-smokable medical marijuana drug program.
The product could be available to pharmacies as early as November, Gould said. That is two months later than earlier hoped, after GB Sciences this week cited regulatory delays at the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Patients who are able to obtain a recommendation and find an open pharmacy could access the drug shortly thereafter.
Dr. Victor Chou, one of the only doctors in the state who has become licensed for therapeutic marijuana and actively pursued the practice, has fielded hundreds of calls in Baton Rouge from patients. By July he had filled 100 spots for consultations.
Because of the state cap, Chou said he expects to have a waiting list of at least 300 patients as soon as the product becomes available.
“We are woefully behind on the doctor end of things,” Chou said. “We need to get the ball rolling on all fronts.”
Some patients who want to use the drug but can’t find a physician licensed and willing to recommend it are frustrated.
Kathleen Clark has an impending neck surgery scheduled and knows from past experience she will be prescribed opioids for pain — something she wants to avoid. After searching in vain for a responsive doctor with a marijuana license, she was able to land on Chou’s waiting list. Clark said she's is willing to drive from her home in St. Charles Parish to Baton Rouge for consultations, if allowed.
Now, she’s taken to writing the Board of Medical Examiners, encouraging it to loosen its rules.
“I just think it’s very unfair that patients have the ability to be treated with a natural, holistic way to control pain … but we can’t get help,” Clark said. “I have to go and badger the medical board and legislators to get help.”
Cameron Hennes, who lives in the small town of Violet, outside of Chalmette, said he has searched for months for a doctor willing to recommend marijuana, a drug he said will help with his incessant seizures and other health issues.
But that search has not yielded results, and Hennes is also on Chou’s waiting list.
“I’m not sure what my next move is,” Hennes said.
“Given the increased number of patients … we feel like we have to go up on the base (100 patient) number and continue to have the exemption,” where doctors already can individually ask the board to lift the cap, said Culotta, the medical examiner board executive director.
Culotta also said it may be too early to say patients won’t have access to medical marijuana because of insufficient doctors since the product is not yet available. Also, doctors are wary of running afoul of federal law, which still labels marijuana as illegal. That's why state law allows doctors to recommend the drug, rather than prescribe it.
“It’s a very nuanced, difficult issue for people to clearly understand,” Culotta said. “People are afraid.”
Some of the nine pharmacies licensed to dispense the drug across various regions around the state said they would be open by November.
The north shore region’s pharmacy, Willow Pharmacy, said it will be open by October or November at its Madisonville site. Lafayette’s Apothecary Shoppe at 620 Guilbeau Road will open in November, owner Eric Vidrine said.
Barring construction or other delays, the Baton Rouge region’s marijuana pharmacy, Capitol Wellness Solutions, should be open in December or January, the owner said. That facility will be located at 7941 Picardy Ave. in the Baton Rouge Health District.
The New Orleans marijuana pharmacy, H&W Drug Store, has told at least one patient it will be open in February, though another pharmacy applicant has sued the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy and asked a judge to vacate H&W’s license. That litigation that is still pending. Owner Ruston Henry did not return calls this week seeking information about when the pharmacy will open.
LSU selected GB Sciences, a publicly-traded, Las Vegas-based company, to run its marijuana growing operation last year, despite the company’s persisting financial woes, including a recent $5.1 million loss in the second quarter of this year.
However, the firm landed a local investment from a group led by Charlie Hohorst, the founder of online specialty food seller cajungrocer.com, and has moved forward with its operations in Baton Rouge.
This week, GB Sciences said it has been ready to begin production for at least two weeks and lamented the slow pace of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s regulatory approval process. Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said the company had not provided all the necessary information.
After an hours-long meeting between regulators and the company on Wednesday, the agriculture department inspected the company’s site off Petroleum Drive on Thursday and gave the preliminary go-ahead on Friday. Regulatory approvals are still pending for GB Sciences’ full operations.
GB Sciences will begin a larger-scale production in the same facility later and hand over the temporary pod to LSU researchers.
The company told LSU in its application it would initially produce the drug in tincture and lozenge form, in formulations that vary the effects of the drug.
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