Louisiana House panel takes first step toward medical marijuana sales, OKs bill to set up marijuana stores _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Legislature 2014 session -- Prior to the opening of the legislative session Monday, Megan Reine, Skyleigh Schwartz (standing), Mackenzi Blankenship and Breann Daigle gather on the steps of the State Capitol Building to support marijuana law changes.

After intense questioning, a Louisiana House committee Wednesday approved creating a license to sell marijuana.

House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, started the hearing by saying the agenda was so light members could expect an early lunch. At the end of 40 minutes of debate, he quipped: “Well, that took little longer than we thought.”

Democratic Rep. H. Bernard LeBas, a pharmacist from Ville Platte, said the unexpectedly prolonged questioning came about because marijuana and its legal use is controversial.

But this is not about people smoking joints; rather, it’s about setting up the process so that patients, with a doctor’s prescription, can obtain pharmaceuticals made from marijuana derivatives — the way other medicines are extracted from plants, he said.

“With all the talk about what’s going on in Colorado (where the sale of marijuana to smoke is legal) and those other states, people naturally have a lot of questions, even though this is a simple bill,” LeBas said.

For instance, Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, wanted to know how medical marijuana would affect drivers.

“We’re hoping they (drug manufacturers) can get rid of the part of the drug to get people high,” LeBas said, and make medicines that treat ailments, such as glaucoma.

Louisiana’s law since the 1990s legalized the use of marijuana for medical treatments, if a doctor writes a prescription. But the state didn’t allow the sale of the drug. A law passed last year allowed the use and sale of medical marijuana.

House Bill 446 would establish marijuana pharmacies and set at $5,000 the minimum fee to apply for a license. For those whose applications are chosen, the fee to operate a store would be $150.

It’s the first step in setting up the process to handle the sale of medicines made from marijuana.

Malcolm Broussard, executive director of the state Pharmacy Board, envisioned a competitive application process and that the $5,000 would be used to pay for inspections, to do background checks, to ensure the applicants are not in a drug-free zone and to prepare the paperwork. The current law would limit the number of marijuana stores to 10, which would be spread around the state.

Existing pharmacies that have a federal permit to distribute prescription drugs may have a problem because federal law forbids selling marijuana. A store selling marijuana would have to be set up separately and be under a different roof, LeBas said.

The panel approved advancing the legislation without objection. HB446 now goes to the full House for consideration. It also must be approved by the Senate and the governor.

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