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GB Sciences, which operates a licensed cultivation center in Nevada, is making progress on a grow center it is developing in partnership with the LSU AgCenter, authorized by the Legislature in 2015 to develop a medical marijuana program.

The state's first license for a medical marijuana pharmacy was awarded Tuesday in the greater New Orleans region to the longstanding owner of H&W Drug Store to dispense the drug at a proposed Gentilly location. 

The marijuana pharmacy would be at 4718 Paris Ave. H&W operates two regular pharmacy locations in New Orleans. 

The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy's surprise vote gave H&W Drug Store the go-ahead despite the firm finishing fourth in the selection process. The decision came after a lengthy and impassioned presentation by H&W owner and CEO Ruston Henry and his brother and business adviser Troy Henry at Tuesday's hearing. The vote was unanimous after the board deliberated behind closed doors for more than an hour. 

"The board reevaluated," Ruston Henry said after the decision. "When you look closely and see our site, our experience, they had to come to that conclusion." 

The move is a major step in the state’s nascent medical marijuana program, which is expected to be up and running this year.

A selection committee composed of Board of Pharmacy members reviewed dozens of applications for marijuana pharmacies statewide before ranking them ahead of hearings last month. Nine regions of the state are slated for marijuana pharmacies. The board on Tuesday also awarded regional licenses for Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma and Lake Charles. Licensing continues Wednesday for the north shore, Shreveport, Monroe and Alexandria. 

Board member Allen Cassidy said the board felt H&W was the "most qualified" applicant after reviewing its application and hearing testimony. He added the board members that voted to award the licenses did not include the members of the selection committee, which did not hear the additional testimony that came in March and at Tuesday's hearings.

"It's not that we were overriding that (selection) committee," Cassidy said. "We had more information presented to us than the committee had."

[RELATEDGambit report: Medical marijuana in Louisiana could be ready by fall 2018]

Cassidy said he is not personally worried about any potential legal challenges because the board did not select the top-ranked applicant.

Sajal Roy, the CEO of the top-ranked applicant, Rx Greenhouse, said he was surprised at the board's move. 

"What's the point of having a subcommittee?" Roy said. "I was on the Maryland Board of Pharmacy and I can tell you that's not how we did things." 

Roy said he plans to file a public records request for H&W's application, and did not rule out a legal challenge, but said he did not want to sue and delay the process. He said he did not know what changed since the selection committee made its recommendation, and wondered aloud why the board did not explain its surprise vote. 

The decision for the New Orleans-area pharmacy came after a lengthy and at times contentious hearing for the New Orleans region, where the five remaining applicants vied for the one permit for the area. 

Roy's firm and the second-place group, GNO Medical Dispensary, traded contentious competing pitches in their presentations. Roy's group accused the head of GNO, Nathaniel Graff, of quietly convincing the owner of an indoor playground next to Roy's proposed pharmacy location to submit a complaint to the board. Rx Greenhouse submitted a sworn affidavit from the owner backing up the story and noted the owner withdrew her complaint. 

Roy said being in first place put a "target" on his back. 

"We had everyone coming after us," he said. 

Graff, in an email, said he was "disappointed" in the board's decision but declined further comment. 

During the hearing, Troy Henry pitched his brother as the "only adult in the room," faulting the other applicants for their sites and CEOs. Ruston Henry asked the board to reconsider the rankings. 

In his application, Henry touted his pharmacy as the longest-running African American-owned pharmacy in New Orleans. The pharmacy, founded by Henry's father, has operated for more than 50 years. 

Henry did not immediately offer a timeline for opening after the hearing, saying he had to meet again with board members to discuss that.

In the greater Houma region, the board selected Green Leaf Dispensary to run the only marijuana pharmacy in the area. Green Leaf finished third in the selection rankings, behind Bayou Therapeutics Pharmacy. 

The license for the greater Baton Rouge area, went unanimously to Capitol Wellness Solutions, which beat out the only remaining Baton Rouge applicant, Green Magnolia Rx. Capitol Wellness Solutions was ranked first in the region by the board's selection committee.

Capitol Wellness is run by Randy Mire, a pharmacist who has owned Gem Drugs, which has two locations in Reserve and Gramercy, for the past decade. Mire's team includes TJ Woodard, who owns and operates Prescriptions to Geaux in downtown Baton Rouge, and former Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie, who will serve as head of security.

Louisiana pharmacy board issues marijuana pharmacy license for Baton Rouge region

In the Lafayatte region, a license went to the Apothecary Shoppe LLC, breaking a selection committee tie for the area. The CEO of the firm is Eric Vidrine, who runs several pharmacies in Lafayette and Baton Rouge, along with his business partner David Mayer, and Brian Ruden, who owns marijuana dispensaries in Colorado and Maryland. Kevin LaGrange, a pharmacist for Professional Arts Pharmacy, one of Vidrine's pharmacies, will serve as pharmacist-in-charge.

Vidrine's firm beat out Acadiana Therapeutic Remedies, composed of a group of Lafayette physicians led by Dr. Kevin Duplechain, along with pharmacists, a local medical marijuana advocate and an industry consultant. The Board of Pharmacy selection committee had ranked both firms first in the region during the selection process.

Acadiana Therapeutic Remedies touted, among other things, letters of recommendations from high-powered politicians, including state Attorney General Jeff Landry, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras.

State lawmakers passed legislation in 2016 to fully authorize the medical marijuana program in the state. The Agricultural Centers of LSU and Southern University then partnered with private companies to grow the plant, and production is expected to begin later this year.

Louisiana’s program is tightly regulated and authorizes patients with a handful of serious diseases to get certain non-smokable forms of the drug. Under current law, patients can qualify for medical marijuana if they have one of 10 serious conditions: cancer, HIV, AIDS, Cachexia or wasting syndrome, seizure disorders, epilepsy, spasticity, Crohn's disease, muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis. Efforts from lawmakers and advocates are underway to expand the disease list.

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.