SADOW: Problems Abound With The New Medical Marijuana Law

So Louisiana finally took the plunge this regular session and went for making dispensing of medical marijuana in the state a future reality. Except that, as things turned out, regardless of the law it may be impossible to do it with no good reason to do it anyway.

While the state actually has had on the books the concept of legal medical marijuana for almost a quarter of a century, until this year a legal mechanism to distribute it was missing. That changed with the enacting of Act 261, which lays out details for the growing of it, the process to prescribe it, and how to dispense it, with three different agencies to issue appropriate regulations to fill in the blanks.

Unfortunately, this rendition seems to have created more questions and ambiguity than it was intended to resolve. The law gives first dibs on production to Louisiana State University or Southern University, and that the LSU Agricultural Center seems willing to undertake thisat one of its 19 locations in the state. But this looks only to cover the cultivation of it, not the processing into one common medicinal use forms, oil (the law prohibits the form of rolled leaves designed for smoking or any other raw or crude variant such as in flakes).

Given that its illegal uses potentially are widespread and voluminous, plenty can go wrong. The official federal dispensary at the University of Mississippi, because of the interest in medical uses of marijuana, has ramped up production to 600 kilograms a year for research purposes. Being that it charges $1,525 for each, this means a cool nearly $1 million a year heads that way. It’s unlikely that Louisiana physicians would need to prescribe as much as two-thirds of a short ton a year, but it’s evident that a production contract could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and political favoritism could play a role in its awarding.

The nature of the contract, parameters for which presumably will get set by regulation, also should have designed into it quality control measures to prevent production of strains considered more for recreational use than medical. Stringent procedures will minimize, if not prevent, any product heading out the back door in rolling paper or ready to be sprinkled on brownies. However, whether the awarding process can avoid politicization and/or the producing process can keep black market leakage insignificant remains to be seen. Better might have been to rely upon importation from larger-scale producers such as Canada and Israel, but the law requires the entire process to occur within the state.

In addition to the uncertainty over production aspects, some observers question whether the law actually will do what it says. They point to its language that mandates submitting a prescription to any of ten dispensaries in the state (creating an opportunity for another ten opportunities to politicize contract awarding), but federal law prohibits doctors from writing these and pharmacists from filling these. Other states’ laws use the word “recommend” or its variants to not create a risk that the federal government could take the license of a medical professional for prescribing a Schedule I drug. For that reason, none may prescribe or fill these in Louisiana, which in effect would moot the law.

Then there’s the narrow nature of the new law that allows its use for only three diseases. A couple of dozen or more uses have been ascribed to medical marijuana, yet only these three made it into law because the previous law legalizing use mentioned them. The new law allow for administratively adding more uses, but politics beyond getting a malady on the list surely will enter this process; this could encourage de facto legalization for nonmedical use by expanding the list to include ailments tenuously tied to any relief allegedly provided by marijuana.

Which, actually, includes practically everything that is claimed that medical marijuana aids. It turns out that a broad range of studies about its use are most likely to find that it has no or even negative effects on specific illnesses than any positive effect. Even the oft-cited use of its oil to help a form of epilepsy affecting children that many parents swear by the science finds at best inconclusive evidence that it actually helps.

In light of all of this, the best thing would be for the state to delay implementing the law and taking a much longer and harder look at the whole issue. It’s not like pouring cannabis oil like syrup over buckwheat pancakes was going to happen soon; following the law’s timeline, assuming no hitches, might take years anyway. Rules covering all aspects must be promulgated by early next year, but the Legislature is under no obligation to deal with them at any time or even to accept them, with the option to refuse to write them into law and thereby restart the process. It simply should sit on these and take up the matter again in the regular session next year, this time paying close scrutiny to research as to whether there are any medical benefits to marijuana and, if deciding such benefits exist,  putting more effort into insulating the process from political manipulation if not outright corruption. It also must decide on language that makes the process unambiguously work, if that’s what it wants.

No doubt the rather half-baked version that emerged into law came from the myriad of compromising among law enforcement, medical professionals, advocates of cannabis use, and those wary of that use’s impact on people and society. If it has to be done, surely a more thoughtful version should come to fruition with greater care put into it. The current version brings more trouble than it’s worth, and policy-makers should act accordingly in neutering it for now and correcting it, if desired, later.

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