Officials in charge of Louisiana's medical marijuana program on Monday faced questions from increasingly frustrated patients wondering when the drug will be available, more than 2½ years after the passage of a landmark bill that set the program in motion.
While regulators and growers at a stakeholder meeting explained the many nuances and challenges that have delayed the medicine hitting the pharmacy shelves, they did not have a certain answer to when that will be.
LSU AgCenter and GB Sciences, the firm picked to produce the medicine at a former Pepsi warehouse in south Baton Rouge, estimates conservatively that it will have the product ready for patients in the summer.
While it could be earlier than that, GB Sciences President John Davis said the company has to go through an involved regulatory process with the state's agriculture department.
Southern University, the other authorized grower of marijuana in the state, said its new private partner, Ilera Holistic Healthcare, has signed a lease on a building in Baker and is working on getting approval to begin growing the plant there. Still, the group will not have product ready until "summer or early fall," said Chanda Macias, one of the owners of the firm — assuming it receives all of its regulatory approvals on time.
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Southern's previous partner, Advanced Biomedics, made little progress before the majority owner sold his stake in the company last fall.
Patients and advocates for medical marijuana grilled the panel of officials Monday in a packed committee room at the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry's offices on Florida Boulevard. They asked for more clarity on why the testing is taking so long, as well as when exactly the product will be available.
Katie Corkern, who previously urged state lawmakers to pass legislation enacting the medical marijuana program, said her son Connor suffers from intractable epilepsy and other conditions for which medical marijuana could help. He was 8 when the first bill passed the legislation paving the way for the program, and now is 12.
"We're waiting," she said. "Connor doesn't deserve this. Neither do the citizens you don't get to see on a daily basis."
Dr. Victor Chou, who runs a medical marijuana clinic in Baton Rouge, said he gets 80 calls and messages a day from patients asking about the program and its status.
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Brian Greer, a member of a group of Louisiana veterans seeking medical marijuana, asked whether state laws could be loosened to get rid of some of the monopolies with production and distribution. The state only authorized two growers and up to 10 pharmacies to distribute medical marijuana. Nine pharmacies have been approved, but only one has received a license so far, said Malcolm Broussard, executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy, as they wait on product to be made available from the growers.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry outlined its testing process, which is ongoing and is required before the drug can hit the market. The agency told patients it is moving as quickly as possible. It sent GB Sciences the first test results for the product this week, and the firm said it was not able to review them before the meeting.
Even when testing is done on the first batch, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain noted GB Sciences may not send it to dispensaries out of fear there won't be another batch coming immediately behind it.
“No one wants to do this quicker than we do, and there's no one under more pressure than the people up here on this dais," Strain said.
The testing of the first batch of product has taken longer than expected because it was extracted using a different method than is standard practice, said Amy Hernandez, agriculture environmental specialist and lab supervisor at the agriculture department. That's because GB Sciences was unable to use normal extracting techniques in the smaller, temporary facility where it is working currently.
The first batch of legal medical marijuana in Louisiana won't be on the shelves until January at the earliest, two months later than hoped, wi…
"It did take longer than I expected because I wasn't expecting it to be that complicated," Hernandez said, adding it will move more quickly in the future.
The agriculture department 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 questions from the industry about what to do if there's a challenge to test results.
The agriculture department only received information from GB Sciences needed for Louisiana State Police to conduct a suitability study about a week ago, and received other documents needed for final approval on GB Sciences' full growing facility several days ago, said Tabitha Irvin, director of the agriculture department's medical marijuana division. The agency will do a walk-through of the facility on Wednesday.
GB Sciences set out last year to build a temporary pod-type facility to begin growing the drug in an effort to quickly get it to market, while it waits on approval for its full-scale facility. But the firm has blown past multiple self-imposed deadlines, citing regulatory hurdles.
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Louisiana State Police also has to conduct a suitability study on the growing companies before they can fully move forward. State Police officials declined to specify where that review stands, citing agency policy against discussing ongoing investigations.
Regulators with the agriculture department, Board of Medical Examiners and Board of Pharmacy also described a laundry list of tweaks to state rules they have made, or are considering. Medical marijuana will be available to patients suffering from a number of ailments including intractable pain, PTSD, cancer, HIV and others.
It will only be allowed in a tincture form, which will be mixed with coconut oil for the final product, Hernandez said.
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