As a majority of Louisiana lawmakers push forward with a proposed medical marijuana law, some are looking to the past — and not with nostalgia.
Some 15 years after former Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted of bribery and extortion in a corruption scheme involving riverboat casino licenses, some lawmakers worry weaknesses in the medical marijuana proposal could lead to similar abuse.
“We’re opening this up for corruptness,” Rep. James Armes said before the House voted 70-29 in favor of Sen. Fred Mills’ medical marijuana proposal. Senate Bill 143, which Gov. Bobby Jindal says he will sign, is up for a final vote in the Senate this week after changes were made in the House.
Armes and a handful of lawmakers say that without safeguards, clout and influence peddling could play a role in who is granted a license to cultivate and distribute medical-grade pot.
Many of the guidelines governing the process haven’t been written yet. That’s because the bill directs state boards and agencies to develop those rules.
That puts power in the hands of state bureaucrats and politicians who will ultimately make the rules and issue licenses.
“I don’t know if I trust some of these boards,” said Armes, a Leesville Democrat who voted against the bill.
Like restrictions limiting the number of riverboat casinos, the marijuana bill calls for one cultivation center and ten dispensaries. Those awarded licenses would gain entry to the lucrative, $3 billion-a-year pot industry, which has rapidly expanded as states roll back marijuana prohibitions.
“When we restricted the gaming licenses, everyone was jockeying for position,” said Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, who voted for the bill.
Mills, R-Parks, said the bill was written restrictively at the behest of the state’s powerful law enforcement associations.
But those restrictions may have side effects.
“When you start talking about these tightly constricted and regulated markets, the real question is how they decide who gets these licenses,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the first trade group of its kind. “They have a potential stranglehold.”
To allay concerns, transparency measures were added to the bill, including a requirement for public bidding on contracts and making the cultivation center subject to public disclosure laws.
“We want to make sure the process is as transparent as possible and not make it into the situation that, of course, we’ve dealt with in the past,” said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, who voted for the bill.
Another change to the bill could limit the role of private industry. It would give LSU or Southern University the choice of operating the cultivation center.
The state has come a long way from the days of Edwards, whose administration seemed under perpetual investigation.
“Louisiana may not be Pollyanna, but I do think it has better oversight having been burned so badly in the past, said Pearson Cross, head of the political science department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.