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Marijuana grows in a temporary facility run by GB Sciences and the LSU AgCenter in south Baton Rouge. A background check on the company has been completed, giving it the go-ahead for growing plants in its permanent facility.

Louisiana's agriculture department on Monday accused the LSU AgCenter and its marijuana-growing partner of breaking the law by improperly expanding their medical marijuana production, escalating a long-simmering feud between the two sides.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry made the accusation after the LSU AgCenter and its contractor, GB Sciences, began moving marijuana plants into its main production facility. They did so after rejecting a deal proposed by the department that outlined conditions needed to move the plants into the facility.

The move effectively expanded GB Sciences production capabilities after months of working in a smaller temporary pod facility. 

On Friday, LSU AgCenter coordinator Ashley Mullens said the deal and conditions proposed by the agriculture department exceeded the agency's authority.

The agriculture department did not say Monday what the next step would be in the dispute, but regulations governing the program say a hearing officer can be called in to make a determination if the agriculture department believes a violation occurs.

The agriculture department and Louisiana State Police are still conducting a suitability investigation into GB Sciences, a process that is commonly used in the gambling industry to look into the backgrounds of operators. The agriculture department has released documents showing the company has repeatedly given incomplete answers to the suitability questions, while GB Sciences said the regulators have not communicated well.

The deal proposed by the agriculture department was intended to expand marijuana production while the suitability process played out.

Because LSU didn’t sign the agreement proposed by the agriculture department and moved plants into the facility anyway, the school and GB Sciences are “in violation of the law, rules and regulations,” Tabitha Irvin, director of the agency’s medical marijuana program, wrote in a letter to the LSU AgCenter on Monday. The agency sent an inspector to the site on Monday to verify the firm and LSU had begun moving the plants.

Ongoing disagreements over the regulatory process have delayed medical marijuana from reaching pharmacy shelves, years after lawmakers legalized it for certain treatments. It is still not clear when the product will reach the pharmacy shelves. LSU has previously said it will have product available by the summer after blowing past multiple self-imposed deadlines. Southern University is the only other licensed grower, and the school’s contracted growing partner is lagging behind LSU’s.

LSU and GB Sciences have for months butted heads with the agriculture department. Last month, the school and GB Sciences accused the department of an "inexplicable" disparity in how it is regulating LSU compared to its treatment of Southern University. 

The agriculture department also has said it can't find a third-party lab to test marijuana, and issued a rule allowing the department to undertake testing itself. That raised industry questions about what to do if there's a challenge to test results. Meanwhile, a New Orleans company sued the agriculture department, arguing the agency improperly rejected its bid to become the state’s independent testing lab.

Last month, the LSU AgCenter demanded permission to move into its full production facility immediately, saying GB Sciences' plants were being destroyed because they were being kept out. The department responded with its conditional proposal last week, while insisting it will not grant full regulatory approvals until GB Sciences goes through the suitability study.

Mullens, in her letter sent Friday, questioned whether the agriculture department actually has the authority to subject GB Sciences to a suitability study. The LSU AgCenter is the licensee for marijuana production, and held a competitive bid process that ended with hiring GB Sciences, a Nevada-based company that has since formed a Louisiana subsidiary partly owned by local investors.

“LDAF has deemed LSU AgCenter suitable, and we are not aware of any law granting LDAF the power to approve or reject LSU AgCenter’s thorough competitive bid process or selection of its own private vendor,” Mullens wrote in the letter.

The agriculture department last week told LSU it could expand its production into two rooms of the main facility, as LSU had requested. However, in return, GB Sciences and LSU would have to meet several conditions. For instance, GB Sciences would have a specific amount of time to respond to requests from regulators, and LSU would be deemed fully responsible for the firm’s actions regarding the suitability process. The agriculture department, which is led by Commissioner Mike Strain, would have had the ability to close operations of the facility if the deal were broken.

Louisiana’s medical marijuana laws, passed nearly four years ago and set forth in a new set of laws nearly three years ago, allow the drug to be produced by LSU and Southern University in certain non-smokable forms. Patients with a list of conditions including intractable pain, cancer, epilepsy and several more are eligible to get the drug.

Patients and advocates have become increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the program. A stakeholder meeting is scheduled for March 25, where patients will get the latest update from growers, regulators and others involved in the industry.


Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.