NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Amid concerns about bottlenecks to access, Louisiana regulators agreed Monday to loosen limits on how many medical marijuana patients doctors authorized to dispense cannabis can treat.
Louisiana's State Board of Medical Examiners voted 8-1 to remove a cap established in 2016 that limited physicians to 100 medical marijuana patients. People seeking the treatment pushed elimination of the cap, worried they will have difficulty getting the medication when it becomes available later this year, estimated around November.
Dr. Victor Chou, who has opened a medical marijuana clinic in Baton Rouge, reached the patient cap months ago and said hundreds of people are on his waiting list.
"Many of them feel locked out because they either cannot find physicians or the physicians they find already have hit the 100-patient limit," Chou told the board.
Only 48 doctors have submitted applications for the Louisiana permit required to offer medical-grade pot to patients, with 31 approved so far. That's such a low number that even without a patient cap, concerns still exist about whether enough doctors will dispense medical marijuana to make it easily accessible to eligible patients.
One of the state's two sanctioned marijuana growers anticipates the number of people eligible for medical marijuana, particularly after state lawmakers earlier this year added more medical conditions that can be treated with cannabis, will reach about 100,000 people.
With a narrower 5-4 vote, the board that oversees physicians also removed a restriction requiring medical marijuana patients to revisit their doctors every 90 days to continue getting therapeutic cannabis.
Jacob Irving, a 26-year-old with cerebral palsy, has been waiting for years for marijuana treatment. He said the limits set by the medical board "get in the way of my statutorily-granted rights" to therapeutic cannabis. He said repeated visits to doctors cost time and money and interfere with a doctor's ability to determine the best course of treatment.
"I want to be free to have my relationship with my physician, who I trust," said Irving, a recent law school graduate from Baton Rouge. "I think blanket rules are inconvenient. They put an economic burden on myself and other patients."
Dr. Roderick Clark, vice president of the medical board, agreed. He suggested eliminating the patient cap and the 90-day follow-up requirement.
"If we're going to treat this as a drug or medication, then the physician should be responsible in the physician/patient relationship to treat that patient appropriately through his scope of process," he said. "We already have rules about that. We have laws about that."
Board member Dr. James Taylor objected to removing both sets of restrictions, saying he worried "that it becomes a de facto open use" of marijuana.
Under a law passed in 2015 and tweaked twice since then, Louisiana is allowing therapeutic cannabis to treat a long list of diseases and disorders, such as cancer, a severe form of cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, epilepsy and muscular dystrophy. Earlier this year, lawmakers added glaucoma, severe muscle spasms, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson's disease.
Doctors won't issue a prescription but a "physician recommendation form," a legal nuance aimed at keeping doctors from jeopardizing their medical licenses because federal law prohibits prescribing marijuana.
Marijuana can be available in medicinal oils, pills, liquids, sprays and topical applications, but cannot be sold in a form to be smoked. Nine dispensing pharmacies will be spread across the state. Only the Louisiana State University and Southern University agricultural centers can grow medical marijuana.