Louisiana made some progress towards marijuana reform last month, when Republican Governor Bobby Jindal signed two bills: one which provides access to medical marijuana to qualified patients, and another which reduces criminal penalties for certain marijuana offenses. According to The Times-Picayune, these new laws “represent more progress on reforming marijuana laws than the state has made in the 24 years since legalizing medical marijuana in 1991.”
This is good news for Louisianans, who — up till now — have been governed under strict prohibitionist policies. Prior to these reforms, the state of Louisiana had a reputation for having some of the most punitive laws in the country in regards to marijuana possession. In 2014, Rolling Stone described Louisiana as a “gulag” which “imprisons more of its residents, per capita, than any other state” and which hands out draconian mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes: “One joint can get you six months in the parish prison. Second offense: up to five years. Third: up to 20.”
The medical marijuana bill signed by Gov. Jindal (S.B. 143) allows for the state to regulate the cultivation and dispensing of marijuana for medical use. Although medical marijuana laws have been in place in Louisiana since the late 1970s, this will be the first time that access to the drug will be provided for patients in the state:
While the Legislature legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 1978, and then again in 1991, there’s no mechanism in current law that allows for the legal dispensing of the drug. The Department of Health and Hospitals was ordered to write rules for dispensing it nearly a quarter century ago, but the rules never adequately implemented the intent of the legislation.
Louisiana’s newest medical marijuana law gives a year for state boards to regulate the growth and distribution of marijuana for the treatment of one of three approved conditions: glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, and chemotherapy-related illness in cancer patients. Medical marijuana advocates in the state argue that the legislation could have done more to provide access to people with other conditions, such as epilepsy or HIV/AIDS. Some, like Michele Hall, whose four-year-old daughter suffers from violent seizures, plan to move to other states with more inclusive medical marijuana laws, such as Colorado.
But according to Senator Fred Mills, the law’s sponsor, these strict limits were necessary to get the bill to survive the legislative process. Mills also points out that the law contains provisions allowing for the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners to make suggestions for additional qualifying conditions in upcoming legislative sessions. While this opens up the possibility of further reform in the state, the pace of the legislature remains a frustration for patients not yet eligible for medical marijuana in Louisiana:
For Hall, waiting a legislative session or two until people suffering from severe epilepsy can access medical marijuana is too long. She’s already talking to doctors in Colorado about bringing her little girl there, discussing possible treatment plans.
“She could fall apart today,” Hall said.