Hopes that Louisiana’s government will expand the number of businesses allowed to grow and dispense medical marijuana have hit a snag.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder — both key leaders in turning any bill into law — said in recent days they don’t want to see a dramatic change in Louisiana’s insular medical marijuana licensing regime.
Currently, only two businesses are allowed to grow the drug, and only nine pharmacies are licensed to sell it to patients. The two growers are private companies partnered with the LSU and Southern University agriculture centers. The nine pharmacies are spread in different regions of the state.
Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, said he doesn’t have an objection to permitting more pharmacies. But in an interview, he said he’s against letting more companies grow marijuana.
“We have to get our program that we have now working properly before we try to expand on it,” he said. “I think right now we have product that’s out there. We just need to do a better job of managing it.”
Edwards, a Democrat who signed legislation in 2016 to finally create the medical marijuana program after a yearslong effort by advocates, said it’s too soon to move away from the current “framework.”
“I would hope they keep the number of (pharmacy) licenses to 10, maybe one or two more if there’s need for that,” Edwards said, adding he’s open to the idea of those pharmacies opening “satellite” locations. “I believe those pharmacies that have been awarded licenses ought to be able to realize the return on their investments that have already been made before we greatly increase the number of pharmacies.”
Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, who chairs the House Health & Welfare Committee, said he realizes it’s going to be a “hard push to expand the growers.” Still, he intends to give his bill to lift the cap on growers’ licenses a hearing Wednesday. Another bill by Rep. Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna, to add six growers to the program, is also slated to be heard in that committee Wednesday.
Marino said he realizes his bill has a tough path, but he hopes members will realize that it will likely take years to get new growers licensed and operating, in the unlikely event they pass his bill this year.
“I don’t think they’re going to pass my bill, but I think they’re going to hear it,” Marino said.
Medical marijuana has exploded in popularity in recent months, after lawmakers and Edwards agreed to allow flower, the popular smokable form of the drug, to be sold in the nine pharmacies. The pharmacy board is authorized to dole out a 10th license but has yet to do so.
Lawmakers who ushered the medical marijuana legislation through the conservative Legislature made LSU and Southern the only approved growers in an effort to appease law enforcement groups and skeptical lawmakers. It came at a time when those schools’ agricultural centers were cash-strapped, and both schools eventually signed contracts with private companies.
LSU’s current growing partner is Good Day Farm, an Arkansas-based firm that used a sizable investment from part-owner Boysie Bollinger to finance a massive growing facility at an old sink warehouse in Ruston. Bollinger is one of Louisiana’s most prolific GOP donors.
Southern’s partner is Ilera Holistic Health, which has a much smaller operation in Baton Rouge.
Lawmakers have filed several bills to expand the program.
The one that is expected to win the most support is Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee’s HB 697, which would let the current pharmacy owners open new locations once patient counts rise. It would also give Jefferson Parish its own pharmacy and dramatically change regulations for growers, making the Louisiana Department of Health instead of Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain the primary regulator.
Magee believes that change will help alleviate production snags. His bill would also eventually let the state license new pharmacy owners once patient count rises further.
Magee said last week he’s open to amending the bill to open the licensing up further, but suggested it could be a tough road politically.