As Louisiana moves toward a November harvest of the first legal batch of medical marijuana, a Lafayette doctor is opening Acadiana's first medical marijuana health clinic.
Total Health Clinic will open Oct. 1 at 610 Guilbeau Road, and another location in Lake Charles will begin seeing patients Oct. 26. Dr. Chad Rossitter, an internal medicine doctor, and Isabella Rossitter who is managing the clinic, are opening the locations.
Chad Rossitter is one of a handful of doctors throughout Louisiana who are opening clinics dedicated to medical marijuana, as the state's nascent industry gets off the ground. Isabella Rossitter said the couple plans to open clinics in Lake Charles, Bossier City, Baton Rouge and West Monroe.
Patients with qualifying medical conditions will be able to get "recommendations" for the drug, in lieu of prescriptions, at the clinic in Lafayette.
The Acadiana region's only medical marijuana pharmacy, the Apothecary Shoppe, will be next door at 620 Guilbeau Road, where patients will be able to actually buy the drug. The owner of the pharmacy said he will be open in November when the first crop is expected to be shipped to pharmacies, in the form of tincture bottles.
"The response has been tremendous," Isabella Rossitter said. "So many people who have been suffering from PTSD, AIDS, autism are so excited they've found a doctor who will recommend this."
With state medical regulators loosening rules on doctors seeking to recommend marijuana to patients, physicians say they now can open clinics focused solely, or mostly, on medical marijuana, as viable businesses. At least one doctor has plans to open locations in New Orleans and Metairie dedicated to seeing patients for marijuana recommendations. Another doctor in Houma said he will soon sign a lease for an office to open a marijuana clinic there.
Previously, the state Board of Medical Examiners capped the number of patients each doctor could recommend marijuana to at 100 but lifted that cap after an outcry among advocates who worried of a bottleneck to access.
"Once you can see as many patients as you can, obviously treating them at the highest level of care possible, it becomes a viable business for many more doctors who want to specialize in this," said Dr. Victor Chou, who opened Louisiana's first medical marijuana clinic in Baton Rouge earlier this year.
After opening, Chou was quickly inundated with calls from patients. By July, he had already filled 100 spots for consultations, which at the time was the limit. He started waitlisting patients, several of whom worried if they would be able to find a doctor who would recommend the drug to them. Earlier this month, the board lifted that cap.
"You could barely eke out a living at 100 patients," Chou said. Now, he anticipates the average doctor dedicating his or her practice to marijuana will see several hundred patients a year.
Relatively few doctors have signed up to recommend the drug to patients. Fifty-three physicians have applied to get a marijuana license from the Board of Medical Examiners, and only 33 have active licenses, according to board data.
But a handful of doctors are dedicating all or most of their practice to medical marijuana.
Dr. Jonathan Allen, an emergency medicine doctor in Houma, said he plans to open a clinic there and dedicate nearly all of his practice to marijuana patients.
"It's evolving so fast and there's so much more literature coming out," Allen said. "To do it part time or a little bit on the side, you really can't stay current with all that stuff."
Allen said he's excited about marijuana as an alternative to opioids, but also as a viable treatment for people with a range of conditions. Louisiana law allows people with cancer, intractable pain, PTSD, glaucoma, severe muscle spasms, seizure disorders and several other conditions to obtain marijuana.
Dr. Peter Candelora, an orthopedic surgeon based in Florida, said he started treating a limited number of cancer patients with marijuana under Florida's program, without much hope it would work.
"It's been unbelievable," he said. "I'm a convert now."
Candelora says he plans to open offices in New Orleans and Metairie to serve patients in Louisiana under the state's medical marijuana program. He plans to begin meeting with patients in the next month.
The owners of the state's nine pharmacies, which are licensed for regions throughout the state, say they will open in the coming months. The Baton Rouge pharmacy, planned for the health district, is set to open in December. The Apothecary Shoppe in Lafayette will open in November. On the north shore, Willow Pharmacy will be open by the time product is available.
In New Orleans, a lawsuit is still pending from the losing bidder for the pharmacy license in the region. The first-place finisher, Rx Greenhouse, is suing the state Board of Pharmacy over its decision to pick the fourth-place finisher, H&W Drug Store.
H&W owner Ruston Henry said in a recent interview the lawsuit "is holding me back a little bit." He also said he would be open in January, though he has not started work on a space yet.
The LSU AgCenter and Southern AgCenter are the exclusive licensed growers of marijuana in Louisiana, and both partnered with businesses to carry out the operations.
LSU's partner, GB Sciences, has begun growing at a former Pepsi distribution center in south Baton Rouge, and plans to have the first batch available to pharmacies in November. Southern's company, Lafayette-based Advanced Biomedics, spent months embroiled in legal battles this year before the school made the partnership official this summer. The school said it will have the first crop available in early 2019 but also said recently the firm had still not acquired the land on which it plans to build a facility from the ground up.
John Davis, head of GB Sciences Louisiana, said recently he is trying to work out supply chain issues with pharmacies to figure out which ones will be open and ready to receive product when it becomes available. The next batch, after November, could be ready to harvest in January, he said, depending on when state agriculture regulators give approval.
The products will be sold in 30 ML tincture bottles, and doctors will recommend a varying number of drops of liquid depending on the patient. Other products like lozenges could come later, Davis said. State law prohibits the product from being smokable.