Medical marijuana expansion effort edges ahead in La. House
A new effort in the Legislature aims to jumpstart the growth and dispensing of medical marijuana and to expand the program's reach. The bill has won support from the Louisiana Senate and began advancing Tuesday in the state House, with an 8-6 vote of the House Health and Welfare Committee.
The proposal by Republican Sen. Fred Mills, a pharmacist from St. Martin Parish, would add more disease states to the list of those that could be treated with medical marijuana -- in a consumable form that can't be smoked.
It also would set a Sept. 1 deadline for LSU and Southern University to decide if they want to be the state-sanctioned grower of the product, in an effort to speed the decision-making since the schools get first right of refusal to grow the plant.
Parents fighting to find medications to treat children's seizure disorders and others struggling through painful diseases have repeatedly testified in support of Mills' bill.
During Tuesday's hearing, Katie Corkern dropped two gallon-sized plastic bags of seizure medications and syringes at the testimony table, saying those were all for her son Connor, who has a rare brain disorder that causes uncontrollable seizures.
Corkern said the medications have "horrendous side effects" that cause developmental problems, force him to be fed through a tube and threaten to damage his liver.
"What kind of life is my 9-year-old son living with such horrific side effects that are tearing his body apart?" she said, choking up. "Connor has run out of options in Louisiana."
Opponents of Mills' bill -- including representatives of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association and the state district attorneys' association -- said they were sympathetic to the parents. But they described the bill as a gateway to illegal drug use and, eventually, legalized recreational marijuana. They said it would allow use of an unproven medication that could be harmful.
"My heart goes out to anyone experiencing pain. I do have compassion," said Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone, president of the sheriffs' group. But he urged lawmakers: "Think with your head and maybe not so much your heart."
The sheriffs didn't oppose the creation of the medical marijuana dispensing framework last year, Stone said, because the program was tailored to be narrow in scope. But he said the association has "grave concerns" about growing the program further.
"Next year we'll want smoke-able marijuana. That's coming," he said.
Mills has tried to reassure lawmakers about safety, saying strict regulations will govern the program. He described the proposal as "patient-specific" and closely monitored.
The medical marijuana law passed last year will eventually get medical-grade pot to people suffering from cancer, glaucoma and a severe form of cerebral palsy. Mills' proposal would add seizure disorders, HIV, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and other diseases to the list. It would remove glaucoma, in response to opposition.
Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, said she was sympathetic to the tearful parents seeking help, but she worried about damaging medical consequences for children.
"I'm not heartless. I'm just cautious," she said, before voting against the bill.
Mills estimated Louisiana is about two years away from getting medical marijuana to patients. The state-sanctioned grower needs to be selected, along with 10 licensed distributors. University leaders say they're still determining whether they'll participate in growing the plant. If both schools decline, a public bidding process is opened.