Frustration over Louisiana’s long-delayed medical marijuana program bubbled up at the State Capitol Tuesday, with lawmakers on a House panel advancing a proposal to strip the state’s agriculture department of its regulatory power over the program following a probe of who’s to blame for lengthy delays.
A debate has played out for months between GB Sciences, LSU’s growing partner, and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, which is tasked with regulating it, over which side is at fault for the repeated delays. Lawmakers have stepped into the fold this session, seeking answers to why no medical marijuana has made it to patients, roughly four years after the Legislature authorized the drug for limited medical uses.
After a lengthy back-and-forth between the two sides, lawmakers on the House Health and Welfare panel advanced a proposal to strip the Agriculture Department of its regulatory power and give it instead to the Louisiana Department of Health on a 6-4 vote.
“The current process is broken,” said state Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, who introduced House Bill 568. “The current process is not working for the state and it’s not working for the patients.”
The measure would still need to pass through several more steps, and win approval from the governor, to become law.
GB Sciences complained of being “ambushed” by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry at the hearing over new revelations about pesticides found in the medical marijuana that could hit the shelves next month. The department sent a letter to GB Sciences on May 2 informing the firm of the pesticides, and provided more information about it Tuesday to lawmakers.
"To be ambushed by a statewide elected officials at a public meeting with information he has chosen not to share with us, that's the only indication you need that we need to fix this relationship,” said John Davis, head of GB Sciences Louisiana.
Davis called the relationship between GB Sciences and the agriculture department a “dysfunctional dance.”
Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who told lawmakers of the levels of the pesticide pyrethrum found in the marijuana, said he was simply responding to a question from a lawmaker. He also defended his agency’s handling of the program, painstakingly detailing the timeline of the department’s interactions with GB Sciences and LSU.
“Our primary, No. 1 concern is patient safety,” Strain said.
Davis, of GB Sciences, said the firm did not use the type of pesticide found by Strain, and suggested it could have been the agriculture department’s own lab that introduced it to the samples. He said after the hearing he does not think the pesticides will ultimately meet the threshold spelled out by LDAF rules once the product is diluted.
Strain said he did not know where the pesticide came from but was working to figure it out.
If Miller’s bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Louisiana Department of Health representative said it would take time to put the “infrastructure” in place for the agency to be able to regulate the marijuana program.
“If time is a problem here, why would we want to wait (longer)?” said state Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall.
Both the agriculture department and GB Sciences had aimed to get marijuana to patients by May 15 after a demand by the state’s marijuana pharmacies, some of which have opened their doors and spent money despite having no product to sell.
But the deadline is expected to come and go without product hitting the shelves, representing the latest in a string of blown deadlines for the program. Officials said at a stakeholder meeting last week June is a possibility for having the medicine available.
Medical marijuana in Louisiana is only allowed in certain nonsmokable forms for people with intractable pain and several other severe health conditions.