Louisiana's governor Tuesday asked President Donald Trump to shield states' medical marijuana programs from federal prosecutors, urging him to "ensure the safe distribution of this life-changing form of treatment."
The letter sent to the White House by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards came in response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement last week that he was ending an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on legalized pot.
The Department of Justice's actions "jeopardize this treatment for those who need it in Louisiana and other states, and I am requesting your support in allowing states like Louisiana to offer marijuana as a form of medical treatment without the threat of federal prosecution," Edwards wrote in the letter, also sent to the state congressional delegation.
Louisiana's medical marijuana program is just getting organized, with plans to have product available to patients by the summer. Officials involved with the program say they're not slowing their work to start up operations, while also seeking additional guidance from the Department of Justice.
Acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson, who oversees federal prosecutors in Louisiana's Middle District where both medical marijuana growing operations will be located, has suggested Louisiana's burgeoning program won't be affected.
In a statement, Amundson said the pot cases handled by his office "typically involve violence, individuals with significant criminal histories and/or large-scale, unregulated trafficking" and he doesn't "anticipate a significant change" in marijuana enforcement in his Baton Rouge-based district.
Forty-six states have legalized some form of medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A legal protection exists for medical marijuana growers, processors, sellers and users in the form of a temporary congressional measure that prohibits the Justice Department from using government funds to target them.
Edwards said he's worried that language expires Jan. 19 and the Justice Department might seek to eliminate the protection.
"This exposes state actors and state-sanctioned agents to potential federal criminal liability despite their adherence to state law which was approved by our legislature and signed into law," the governor wrote. "If this were to take place, it would be devastating to so many men, women and children who are anxiously awaiting access to this treatment option."
Louisiana's law, passed in 2015 under former Gov. Bobby Jindal and tweaked again in 2016 under the Edwards administration, allows use of medicinal pot for people with cancer, a severe form of cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and other specific diseases. Marijuana can be available in medicinal oils, pills, sprays and topical applications, but cannot be sold in a form that can be smoked.
In Louisiana, only the agricultural centers at LSU and Southern University are allowed to grow medicinal-grade pot, overseen by the state agriculture department. Both schools have selected vendors to run the growing operations and are continuing their start-up without disruption by Sessions' decision.
A handful of doctors have applied for and received permission to dispense medical marijuana once it's available. The Board of Pharmacy has indicated it intends to issue nine permits to dispensing pharmacies, with selections planned later this month.