What to know about Louisiana's medical marijuana program heading into 2019

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Slowly, Louisiana's medical marijuana program is  gaining some traction toward getting products to patients. 

LSU AgCenter harvested its first crop of marijuana in October. And after more than a year of delays, Southern University's medical marijuana program is now under a new operator that says it will start the build out of a new facility starting early next year and could have crop available by the second quarter of 2019. 

This is a look at where Louisiana's program stands now and what to expect going into 2019.

Southern University Board of Supervisors approves Ilera Holistic Healthcare as the new majority shareholder of Advanced Biomedics, the company hired to cultivate medical marijuana.

Ilera enters the game

Ilera Holistic Healthcare, a division of Pennsylvania-based Ilera Healthcare, has taken over Southern University's growing operations. 

Ilera presented Southern University with a check for $2.15 million on Nov. 13. This was the first of more than $6 million in payments made in an effort to kick off the program after Southern's original partner Advanced Biomedics failed to make any progress in 2018.

Southern University is one of two state-sanctioned growers along with Louisiana State University. The LSU Ag Center and its partner GB Sciences Louisiana harvested their first crop of medical marijuana in late October. 

Ilera came forward in mid-October after the former majority shareholder of Advanced Biomedics, Lafayette-businessman Carrol Castille, said he wanted to sell his share of the company. Ilera purchased his 68 percent interest in the company, essentially taking control of Advanced Biomedics, the company that was selected to grow marijuana for Southern's program.

Although the move was celebrated by the majority of Southern's board members, others questioned why Ilera had not gone through the same procurement process other companies vying for Southern's contract had been required to go through.

"What Advanced Biomedics did to Southern is a travesty of justice," Southern board member Tony Clayton said during the board meeting. "They violated the rules of the contract. These companies that came in second and third. They should have had an opportunity to get a bite of the apple."

Southern Roots Therapeutics was one of the three finalists that originally submitted bids to Southern University, along with Advanced Biomedics and Med Louisiana. At the start of the meeting, Southern Roots CEO Aim Tucker stood before the board and questioned why Ilera was not put through the same transparent process as the rest of the companies.

"Ilera assumed majority ownership and circumvented the entire process," she said. 

What to expect next from Ilera and Southern?
Pere Masperos and a marijuana convention at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on Thursday, May 10, 2018.

What to expect next from Ilera and Southern?

Dr. Chanda Macias, was elected president of Ilera Holistic Healthcare recently, and has worked as a consultant for Southern University's medical marijuana program over the past year. She is also the owner of the National Holistic Healing Center, a dispensary based in Washington D.C. Macias said that she had previously tried to bid for Southern's contract but missed the deadline. Ilera Holistic Healthcare is owned by Macias, her husband Michael Bobo, and Ilera Healthcare CEO Gregory Rochlin. 

The company said that it has put in a purchase agreement on a 47-acre plot of land across from Southern University Ag Center on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge. Macias said it will take about 60 days for the company to close on the land 

Once they buy the land, Macias said the company plans to set up temporary grow pods. Once the temporary pod receives approval from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, it takes approximately five weeks for marijuana crop to grow. 

"We hope to have medicine out by the second quarter of next year," she said. 

She estimated it will take a year for a permanent facility to be constructed. 

Cannabis research at Southern University
The MJBizCon convention at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on Thursday, May 10, 2018. 

Cannabis research at Southern University

"I'm excited that we are moving forward with this program," said Janana Snowden, the director of the Southern Institute for Medicinal Plants after the meeting. 

Ilera paid Southern $150,000 intended to go toward research being conducted at the university's medicinal plant institute. 

The institute will have a small research space at the final facility Ilera is expected to build.

Snowden said that much of the research being conducted at the institute centers around disease states such as autism, Alzheimer's and prostate cancer using plants that have similar compositions to the cannabis plant.

"My students are very interested in moving forward and looking at how compounds in the cannabis plant can be used in the treatment of these different disease states," she said. 

LSU Ag harvests first crop, but is hit with delays

The LSU Ag Center and its cultivator GB Sciences Louisiana harvested their first crop of medical cannabis in the middle of October. The next step in the process would be to have extracts from the plants tested for possible contaminants. 

Testing has been delayed for over a month and GB Sciences Louisiana president John Davis said he is trying to coordinate with the LDAF to get testing done the week after Thanksgiving.

In testing medical cannabis, labs are looking for contaminants such as mold, pesticides, the presence of heavy metals in the plant, microbials as well as THC and CBD levels.

However, a testing lab isn't ready yet. The LDAF, the regulatory agency for Louisiana's medical marijuana program, has invested $800,000 in building out its own testing facility. Laura Lindsay, a spokesperson for the agency said in an email that they are coordinating with the LSU AgCenter and GB Sciences to set up an inspection date of their main facility. 

Testing would take anywhere from four to six weeks. Davis said that they are still aiming for January in order to get the 'tincture', a liquid form of cannabis, prepared for dispensaries. 

The release of product however will be limited, he said.

"The initial release of product will not satisfy a mature market," he said. 

John B. Davis, Executive Vice President of GB Sciences, gives a tour of a growing pod at the soon-to-open LSU Ag Center facility for medical marijuana on Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Is testing required in all states?

Independent testing of medical grade marijuana has not always been a requirement, according to Karen O'Keefe, the director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national non-profit organization advocating for marijuana policy reform. Some of the states that were the earliest to legalize marijuana for medical use such as California were limited in their ability to regulate and require testing of products, she explained. California only passed a law requiring outside testing in 2015 and didn't start testing product until July of this year, she said.

"Requiring testing is important especially for patients who want to know what materials are being used to grow the plant or even the potency of the medication," she said.

Are there enough doctors?

The number of medical conditions that qualify for medical cannabis in Louisiana grew substantially this year to include patients with severe autism, chronic pain, and Parkinson's disease among other conditions. Not including these conditions the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy estimates that there are about 830,000 patients that qualify for medical cannabis.

So far only 67 doctors have signed up to recommend medical cannabis. The list is frequently updated on the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners website and includes physicians who have been approved, denied, and applications that are still pending. 

What about the cost?

It might still be too soon to know the exact cost of medication once it becomes commercially available. But delays with Southern's program and tight restrictions of Louisiana's program has some patients concerned about being priced out once products are available. 

Mardi Odom, 55, a patient from North Louisiana, has bought medical cannabis in California, where it is legal, to help her manage symptoms caused by a gastro intestinal condition called Crohn's Disease. She also suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Glaucoma, two additional conditions covered by Louisiana's program.

Spending more than $100 a month on cannabis medication, which isn't covered by health insurance, would be impossible, she said.

"If it's overpriced, they are just helping keep it on the streets," she said.

Davis said that GB Sciences is focused on creating consistent and reliable medication that will be properly priced.

"If we overprice, patients will not buy the product or easily go to the illegal market," he said. 

What has happened in other states?

With two state-sanctioned cultivators, Minnesota's medical cannabis program most closely resembles Louisiana’s program. These two states are the only ones with an operational medical cannabis program that do not allow flower cannabis and only extracts. 

O'Keefe with the Marijuana Policy Project said this has resulted in Minnesota having  'some of the highest medical cannabis prices in the country.'

In an official survey for the Office of Medical Cannabis with the Minnesota Health Department, most Minnesota patients reported medical cannabis is not affordable, with 35 percent saying the cost was "very prohibitive" — a 7 out of 7 for its lack of affordability. 

"With only a single grower in Louisiana, there is a danger of exorbitant prices, a shortage of supply, and a lack of variety of cannabis strains and products. Our country has long recognized that monopolies and oligopolies are anti-consumer. Louisiana patients would be better served if there were significantly more cultivators," said O'Keefe.

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