The Louisiana Office of Workers’ Compensation (OWC) hosted its eighth annual Educational Conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge, February 1st and 2nd. Included in the dynamic program was an update on the status of Louisiana’s new medical marijuana program, featuring the state Senator who spearheaded the effort, and the LSU Ag Center doctor overseeing the cultivation of the product.
Senator Fred Mills (R – New Iberia) spoke to a packed room of about 150 attendees along with Dr. William Richardson, Vice President of the LSU Agricultural Center. Senator Mills, whose bill created the framework for distribution of medical marijuana in Louisiana (it has technically been legal here since the early 90s) framed the debate over the drug as a stand off between patients and law enforcement. Mills’ work as a pharmacist often put him in the crosshairs of emerging treatments for serious chronic conditions.
“I decided to take up this effort because I had patients coming into my office looking for relief and hearing about medical marijuana in other states,” he said. “The first year I brought the bill, it was a massacre. One colleague voted for it as a favor in Committee so that it wasn’t just a big goose egg.”
It took intense negotiation with the Louisiana State Troopers, the Sheriff’s Association, and the Attorney General’s office before anything started to move. Mills described the meetings to win their support partially as an educational effort, as misunderstandings regarding the differences between THC (the psychoactive component in marijuana) and CBD (the chemical believed to be responsible for therapeutic benefits) were rampant.
“I think the main concern for them was that we’d end up doing something like California’s system,” Mills explained, referring to the notoriously lax system of marijuana patient licensure on the West Coast. “I had to make clear to them that my bill was not just a pathway to recreational legalization.”
Opposition also eased when Mills constructed a series of amendments which, first and foremost, limited eligible populations to a small handful of chronic disease sufferers (people with HIV/AIDS, spastic quadriplegia, cancer, and a few other conditions) and secondly, limited the form available. Louisiana’s medical marijuana program will only make a low THC, high CBD non-smokable oil available to eligible patients. In other words, it will produce almost no to a minimal psychoactive high, and is unlikely to be diverted.
In Committee debate, Mills described the tenacity of patients testifying in favor of medical marijuana as a major factor. “We had one patient confined to a wheelchair who suffered a seizure during testimony,” he said. “And I looked around the room and said, ‘do you want this young man to suffer if this could help him?’” Once the Sheriff’s Association lifted its opposition in 2015, the bill passed.
That’s where Dr. Richardson with the LSU Ag Center took the lead, as the law stipulates that universities are in charge of writing the rules for and coordinating growing and distribution.
“When I got on this project I wanted to eliminate any heartburn that might exist after the bill passed,” Dr. Richardson said. He met numerous times with law enforcement in Louisiana as the growing facilities were being planned, and continues to keep them abreast of developments. Richardson even led law enforcement agencies and Louisiana legislators on tours of the growing locations – even though he joked that he feared being arrested the whole time, drawing hearty laughter from the audience.
“I think the image some people still had was that this was going to be some kind of rolling field of waist-high marijuana plants out in the open,” Dr. Richardson explained. “That is not the case. Our growing facilities are indoors, not disclosed to the public, and no students will be allowed to work in them. Our entire operation could fit in this conference room.”
Further, because marijuana is still an illegal Schedule I substance under federal law, Dr. Richardson arranged to get tissue cultures to grow the initial plants, thus avoiding moving illegal plants or seeds across state lines.
Although it has been many years in the making, select patients are very close to being able to try medical marijuana for their illnesses. “Right now, we are predicting plants in pots by the end of March 2018, and product in the hands of patients by the end of the Summer,” he said. Dr. Richardson also emphasized the monetary potential of medical marijuana for the state, as LSU scientists could patent new medical technology from the program.
While Louisiana workers’ comp patients are not likely to be eligible for medical marijuana except in very rare cases of catastrophic injury, several conference attendees asked about what effect treatment with medical marijuana could have in workplaces. Senator Mills answer was succinct. “We treat chronic pain with opioids…I don’t see how that’s much different from a low THC oil with appropriate precautions for people with very serious disease.” Mills added that if additional disease states are added, which could happen, they will remain very conservative in the assessment of necessity.
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