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Horticulturist Joe Davis clips leaves from flowering marijuana plants at the cultivation and manufacturing facility operated in Baton Rouge by Wellcana Group, the LSU-licensed medical marijuana maker. Yellow light from high-pressure sodium bulbs gives a warm glow to the room.

Louisiana’s nine medical marijuana pharmacies will soon be able to sell the smokable flower form of the drug, after Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that expands the legal forms of marijuana for medical use.

Edwards, a Democrat, signed House Bill 391 from the recently-ended legislative session, his office said Tuesday.

The measure, by Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, lets patients buy up to two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana flower every two weeks from the state’s licensed pharmacies. Previously, the state’s tight rules for the program meant patients could only access certain non-smokable forms of the drug, like tinctures, gummies and inhalers.

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John Davis, head of Wellcana, one of the state’s two licensed marijuana growers, said: “Act 424 has an effective date of January 1, 2022. Flower will be available for purchase at the pharmacies on January 1, 2022.”

"We look forward to introducing our first medical flower products as soon as legally allowed and continuing to drive the market forward to benefit our patients. We are grateful to the state legislature for listening to their constituents and experts in recognizing the importance of giving patients options such as smokable flower," said Chanda Macias, CEO of Ilera Holistic Healthcare.

The legislation is perhaps the most significant expansion of medical marijuana made by Louisiana’s conservative Legislature since lawmakers approved the program in 2015. Marijuana became available to patients in 2019 after one of the state’s two growers started moving its products into the nine pharmacies, which are located in different regions of the state.

Proponents of the measure argued Louisiana’s tight rules for the medical marijuana program would spell the end of the industry in the state, especially as neighboring states, like Arkansas, approved full-fledged medical marijuana programs. The raw form of the drug is cheaper to produce, because it requires less processing, according to the two growers. Those growers are Wellcana, which is partnered with the LSU AgCenter, and Ilera Holistic Healthcare, which is partnered with the Southern University AgCenter.

The new law is also expected to heighten the demand for marijuana, but lawmakers sidelined a proposal to add another grower to the mix, keeping in place a monopoly for Wellcana and Ilera. Legislative leaders indicated they would propose expanding the number of growers and pharmacies next year.

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The debate over Magee’s bill illustrated a growing willingness on behalf of the conservative Legislature to loosen the state’s historically hardline stance on marijuana. A host of lawmakers, including conservative Republicans, testified during hearings on the bill that they know family members or friends who benefitted from the drug for medical purposes, like end-of-life cancer care.

Lawmakers also approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. That means people caught with up to a half-ounce of marijuana--not obtained legally through a licensed pharmacy – will be subject to a $100 fine and a summons, instead of potential jail time. It was hailed by advocates as a criminal justice reform effort that brings Louisiana in line with at least 27 U.S. states on pot laws.

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The Legislature rejected legislation to fully legalize marijuana, like 19 other states have done. 

Magee pitched HB391 to allow patients to get the smokable form of the drug alongside another proposal to tax the raw form of marijuana. Currently, medical marijuana products aren’t subject to sales taxes, but Magee proposed lifting that exemption only for flower. But Magee and Senate leaders transformed the marijuana tax bill into an unrelated roads bill, and ultimately ditched the part about taxing pot. That means patients won’t see an added sales tax for the smokable product.

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