Louisiana lawmakers weigh legalizing smoking marijuana for medical, nonmedical uses

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Louisiana lawmakers are considering expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program and may even be poised to take the once-nearly-unthinkable step of legalizing it for all adults.

Medical cannabis technically has been legal in Louisiana since 1978, though the Louisiana Legislature didn’t take concrete steps to make it available until 2016. While the program took about three years to get products into patients' hands, lawmakers have moved quickly since to broaden its scope.

Though legal access to therapeutic cannabis products initially was limited to patients with specific ailments, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly last year to give doctors the ability to recommend access for any patient they think will benefit. Doctors can’t officially prescribe marijuana because it remains illegal under federal law; the recommendation is a legal workaround.

The state House will consider House Bill 391 on Monday. It would add smokeable raw marijuana to Louisiana’s legal options for medical use for the first time. Supporters said the flower is cheaper than the tinctures now available and is a safer alternative than opioids for some patients. The Health and Welfare Committee advanced the bill to the House floor with a 12-1 vote, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has expressed support for the change.

“This is wildly popular in every corner of the state,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, the Houma Republican who authored the measure.

Polls also show full legalization for adult use is popular statewide. Baton Rouge-based pollster and consultant John Couvillon recently found that 67% of state residents favor legalization, up from 54% one year ago, and Magee’s corner of the state is no exception.

Magee commissioned a poll that found 75% of his district, including 73% of Republicans, favored legalization, he said Friday via social media. Magee’s district is largely conservative; 75% of its voters supported Donald Trump, 64% voted for Republican Eddie Rispone for governor and 77% supported Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, Couvillon said in response to Magee’s post.

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, is sponsoring House Bill 699, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults who are at least 21 years old. His House Bill 440 proposes a $2,500 annual fee for a cannabis business license and a $100 cost for a personal cultivation permit.

Nelson’s House Bill 434 calls for a 10% retail tax and a 5% wholesale tax, with 20% of the proceeds dedicated to local law enforcement where the sale was made, 30% to local government and the rest to state government’s general fund. During the committee debate, Nelson said the taxes could raise between $100 million and $200 million.

Nelson stressed he wasn’t saying that smoking marijuana is a good idea, only that the benefits of ending prohibition outweigh the harms. People are going to smoke marijuana whether it’s legal or not, so it makes sense to bring it out of the shadows, tax it and regulate it, he argued. Legalization would cut off a major funding source for organized crime and allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes, he said.

Nelson said he was opting for a “free-market” approach. In California, high taxes and government regulation drive many consumers into the black market, he said.

Representatives of law enforcement and district attorneys were among those who argued against HB 699. Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, said research in Colorado showed an increase in teen suicides after legalization. He also said organized crime gets involved in production, rather than being shut out of the industry.

“Tap your breaks and study this,” he urged.

Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said colleagues in states where marijuana is fully legal recommend moving slowly and studying the implications over at least a couple of years. Factors that may not be obvious include the impact on electricity grids and possible groundwater contamination, he said.

The criminal justice committee sent HB 699 to the House floor with a 7-5 bipartisan vote.

“Similar to alcohol, the recreational availability of this drug to adults would essentially ensure access to children,” Gene Mills, president of the conservative Louisiana Family Forum, said in the LFF’s email newsletter sent Friday. “Let’s just say no to yet another method that ruins the lives of Louisiana residents.”

Edwards generally has said he does not support legalization for recreational use, but he has not said he would veto a legalization bill if it reached his desk.





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