Gov. John Bel Edwards signs measure to expand medical accessibility of marijuana in Louisiana _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Elizabeth Crisp -- Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signs medical marijuana legislation on Thursday, May 19, 2016.

Did anyone doubt that legalizing medical marijuana dispensing in Louisiana would descend into something less about medicine and more about politics and money?

Although Louisiana legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes over a quarter-century ago, the state had no lawful way to dispense it. Lawmakers kick-started that procedure three years ago by prohibiting its use in inhalable form, creating a list of conditions the drug may treat legally, and establishing a system of ten dispensing pharmacies selected by the existing Board of Pharmacy, a body of gubernatorial appointees.

These changes invited bucks and influence to shape what would come. To date, research shows only two conditions affected significantly and positively by ingesting marijuana: chronic pain and spasticity. Yet the law with its successive iterations expanded the list to ten, not only because dispensaries needed a critical mass of users to make enough money to stay in the business but also because of pressure put on legislators to legalize a presumed palliative for a number of conditions.

The sketchy-to-nonexistent empirical support for most uses listed in statute hasn’t stopped momentum to expand usage further. Bills this legislative session have tried to multiply applicable ailments for treatment and to make legal vaporization. A bill that has passed the House of Representatives, although removing vaporization, added several medical conditions to the list of legal uses.

Last week, medical marijuana’s nexus of politics and money became even more apparent. In the Legislature, members of the Black Caucus voiced concern that minority-owned firms received short shrift from the current dispensing process and just ten licenses provided insufficient outlets around the state.

In response, a House committee advanced a bill to grant an unlimited number of licenses but restricting those to pharmacists while relaxing applicant financial requirements. This likely would increase the proportion of minority-owned dispensers but certainly would expand availability and thus dollars involved.

Almost simultaneously with that panel’s debate, the pharmacy board met and unanimously — and controversially — gave the green light for marijuana dispensing to a minority-owned pharmacy. The board designated a distributor for each of nine regions, with the one in New Orleans going to H&W Drug Store. According to objective business and science criteria vetted by a committee separate from the board, it ranked only fourth in the area.

What that company may have lacked in qualifications relative to other firms it appeared to make up in political connections. Former two-time mayoral candidate Troy Henry advises his brother, who owns the long-standing pharmacy, on its operation. After his defeat in the general election last fall, Henry endorsed Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell for the runoff.

Board members said Troy Henry’s presentation brought new information that convinced them, and there’s no indication that the winner can’t do the job. However, the board didn’t explain why it passed over entities the committee judged having stronger credentials.

Nor was H&W the only applicant utilizing high-profile political figures as part of a pitch. Petitioners across the state sought politically-connected individuals to sign on in support. The Baton Rouge awardee has the city's former  police chief, Carl Dabadie, on staff, and a losing bid for Lafayette came with recommendation letters from Attorney General Jeff Landry, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.

Political clout may have played no role in the board’s selections last week, yet the overtones injected into the process create an unseemly appearance. Legislative attempts to broaden the industry’s reach display how political considerations and business appetites take precedence over science.

Gambling, another enterprise controversially legalized in Louisiana, started out tightly regulated but continues to grow by shedding restraint after restraint. The state may suffer déjà vu with marijuana use.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.

Louisiana Pharmacy Board hands out remaining licenses for medical marijuana pharmacies; 10th to come later in high-demand area