Medical marijuana in Louisiana could be ready by fall 2018

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Medical marijuana products could be available to Louisiana patients as early as September — 40 years after state lawmakers first approved marijuana for medical use.

Officials from Louisiana State University and Southern University — the stewards of the state crops to be processed into marijuana-based medicines — presented rough timelines and budgets to the joint House and Senate agriculture committee April 18, the same week the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy awarded competitive, potentially lucrative licenses to nine medical marijuana pharmacies that will cover the entire state.

These moves follow 2015 and 2016 legislation that tasked several statewide agencies with coming up with the rules for medical marijuana in Louisiana. Those laws followed a dead-end 1978 medical marijuana law that sat dormant on the books without any legal infrastructure to back it up.

Current law allows only for oil-, cream- and pill-based cannabidiol products, not smokeable pot, to treat cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Crohn's disease, cachexia and epilepsy.

This year, Louisiana lawmakers also considered allowing medical marijuana to treat glaucoma, severe muscle spasms, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.

LSU will grow plants in an undisclosed 27,000 square foot building in Baton Rouge (“the thought of having 40 acres of weed growing out in the country does not exist," said Bill Richardson, LSU Vice President for Agriculture and Dean of the College of Agriculture). GB Sciences will build a 5,000 square foot lab for research and production following the plants’ eight- to ten-week growing cycle.

Las Vegas-based GB Sciences will develop products from LSU’s crop and Advance Biomedics will develop Southern University’s.

The goal is to produce a “plant that’s very low in THC and very high in CBD,” Richardson said.

That product could be made available as early as September — aligning with a timeline for pharmacies to open after a competitive bidding process and the state’s Pharmacy Board awarding licenses for each designated dispensary zone throughout the state.

Southern University anticipates construction “starting immediately” and lasting roughly six months. Production of the crop begins in October and processing — handled by Advance Biometrics — is likely to begin in December and January. Southern’s product will be available to dispensaries in early February 2019, according to Bobby Phills, Chancellor of the Southern University Ag Center.

LSU’s AgCenter also will work with LSU’s Health Science Centers in Shreveport and New Orleans, as well as the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, which already is researching cannabis.

“There’s a lot of research being done in other countries, the U.S. seems to be significantly farther behind other countries with regard to research to this plant,” said Hampton Grunewald, Governmental Relations for LSU AgCenter.

But university officials faced scrutiny from several committee members about potential legal conflicts with federal authorities, including how the state’s program is funded, whether it conflicts with federal rules against marijuana, and if the program could jeopardize the states’ federal funding.

“I feel really good about where we are relative to the controversy between the state and feds,” Richardson said. “The complication for us is we’re the only university in the country that’s involved with this, with our counterparts at Southern.”

Mike Strain, Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, said he anticipates program costs to reach $1.4 million, which $150,000 for the Louisiana State Police security, $250,000 in lab processing, and an undetermined amount for tracking software to manage the drugs from plant to product. Strain says those loans will be reimbursed with revenue from the program.

University officials also ensured that state and federal authorities aren’t likely to interfere with the program — in the event those funds are seized, they remain separate from other state funds and funding administrator Chase Bank. Several lawmakers weren’t convinced.

“We’ve made every possible precaution to deal with this,” Richardson said. “I can’t call the U.S. attorney general and ask him to give us a ruling on this. … We have tried to protect this project the best we possibly can. … If you’re asking for a written thing that can stand up in court, we don’t have it.”

“Are we standing on a conversation or are we standing on a legal document?” said state Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro. “It’s still against the law.”

“I didn’t need to come here today to understand that,” Richardson said. “We’re doing what the state and what you people asked us to do, and we’re doing it damn well.”

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