Louisiana medical marijuana bill dies in committee




Medical marijuana has been on Louisiana's books since 1991, allowing doctors to prescribe pot to certain patients. But federal law and no state infrastructure for dispensing and regulating marijuana effectively neuters that law, though it remains on the books.

Today, the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare voted to defer Senate Bill 541 from state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Breaux Bridge. That bill deletes the current law and replaces it with a comprehensive means of regulating the prescription of marijuana, including creating a Therapeutic Marijuana Utilization Review Board and coordinating authorities with the state's Dept. of Agriculture and Forestry, the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy and the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners. The committee voted 6-2 against the bill. (Sens. Bret Allain, Sherri Buffington, Dan Claitor, Dale Erdey, Elbert Guillory and Ben Nevers voted to defer the bill; Mills and Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb voted against the motion.)

In January, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would be open to medical marijuana "if there is a legitimate medical need" and under "very strict supervision." That month, the Louisiana House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice met with doctors, criminal justice organizations and reform advocates to discuss the "feasibility and effectiveness" of legalizing weed. Legislature filed several marijuana bills that tackle health and criminal justice reforms. Last week, however, a bill to reduce penalties for marijuana possession was also killed in committee.

At today's meeting, advocates speaking in favor of Mills' bill included doctors Mark Alain Dery of Tulane University and Karla Doucet, as well as Jacob Irving, a student with spastic quadriplegia and a member of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. Marjorie Esman, executive director of ACLU of Louisiana, told the committee, "You’re going to hear a lot of opposition mostly from law enforcement. What you will hear is political, not medical ... (and) based on politics and based on fear."

The committee applauded Irving's story and courage — chairman Sen. David Heitmeier said, "I think this committee wants to find a way we can help" — though opponents argued that the bill would compromise federal law under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), upheld by the district attorneys arguing against the measure. "It pains me to oppose this bill," said Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier.

"You’re not the FDA," Mike Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, told the committee, adding that the medical exemption for smoking marijuana would create "problems for law enforcement with identification" and that the decision ultimately lies with the feds.

"This is not a medicine," said Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott. "It’s a controlled dangerous substance and has serious side effects."

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell also spoke in opposition, suggesting that despite no medical evidence, marijuana is a gateway drug and linked to "85 percent" of cases he's seen that also involved "some of the most vicious, brutal murders (and) rapes."

Mills dispatched Caldwell, asking, "We’re talking about people with cancer where this is a last-ditch effort for (treatment). ... Do you want to throw (the bill) in the garbage?" Caldwell admitted he hadn't read the bill.

Before the vote, Claitor attempted to add an amendment that would put the bill into effect only if the FDA approved medical marijuana. That amendment also failed.

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