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Medical marijuana grows inside Ilera Holistic Healthcare's medical marijuana facility, Tuesday, October 13, 2020, in Baker, La.

Louisiana medical marijuana patients will likely soon be able to access the raw, smokable form of the drug, after the state Legislature agreed to expand the program beyond the current non-smokable forms like tinctures, gummies and inhalers.

The state Senate voted 23-to-14 Thursday to approve Rep. Tanner Magee’s House Bill 391, which lets patients buy up to two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana flower every two weeks from the state’s nine licensed marijuana pharmacies.

The Senate made technical changes that still need the House’s approval. After that, the bill would head to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has indicated he’ll sign it.

The bill represents a significant expansion of Louisiana’s medical marijuana program, which was put in place with some of the nation’s tightest regulations several years ago.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders are trying to use the companion bill to tax the smokable form of marijuana to also extend the state’s sales tax increase in an effort to fund road and bridge projects.

Magee’s bill to legalize the smokable form of marijuana for medical use also illustrates the shifting attitudes surrounding marijuana by Louisiana’s conservative state Legislature, which for several years has slowly loosened the tight rules on the medical marijuana program. 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.

Magee has argued that with nearby states legalizing the smokable form of marijuana for medical use, Louisiana’s program will be rendered obsolete unless lawmakers keep up. Patients prefer the raw flower of the plant and the bill will help patients access a cheaper product, he said.

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Magee also wants to tax the raw form of marijuana he’s trying to legalize, through a separate tax bill. The non-smokable forms of marijuana currently available to patients aren’t subject to sales taxes.

But Senate leaders also are using House Bill 514 in a bid to make other significant tax changes that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects. Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, amended HB514 on the Senate floor Wednesday to extend the temporary 0.45% of state sales tax – passed in 2018 to help balance the budget – from 2025 to 2031 with much of the proceeds going towards infrastructure projects like a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, upgrades to U.S. Hey. 90 through bayou country to create an interstate highway from Lafayette to New Orleans, a new I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge and other projects.

Ward called the proposal a “really good infrastructure package” that has the support of Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. The Senate Finance Committee will vet the bill before it returns to the full Senate. Some Democrats complained that the state shouldn’t extend the higher sales tax rate because it’s regressive.

“If we continue to push the ball down the road and wait for some other possibility to come along to fund our infrastructure, all we’re going to hear is ‘I went to Texas last week and they’ve got some great roads,’” Ward said Wednesday.

Lawmakers have brought several bills to loosen Louisiana’s conservative stance on marijuana this session, which must end June 10th. The state House rejected a bid to legalize the drug for recreational use, amid pressure by the influential Louisiana Sheriffs Association. But opponents have also conceded legalization is likely inevitable and vowed to study the issue ahead of next year’s session.

The House approved legislation to decriminalize marijuana, taking away the possibility of jail time when people are caught possessing up to a half-ounce of pot and instead issuing them a summons that comes with an up to $100 fine.

That bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary C Committee and awaits a vote of the full Senate.

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