50 States

50 States: Louisiana

By Jon Young

50 States:  Louisiana

Medical: Yes (limited)
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: No

Louisiana may not be the first state one thinks of when thinking of legal cannabis, but as the national narrative on cannabis use continues to change with the ebb tide of the failing “War on Drugs,” Governor Bobby Jindal signed bills that could potentially make medical marijuana (MMJ) more accessible and will significantly decrease the penalties for possession of limited amounts of cannabis.

“I'm absolutely in favor of making sure that, especially [for] nonviolent offenders, we're providing drug treatment, rehabilitation, instead of just continuing to lock them up," Governor Jindal said. "The reality is that I think it's better for those individuals to get back as productive members of society.”

With the signing of SB 143, Louisiana’s 24-year-old medical marijuana law known as the Alison Neustrom Act is bothamended and re-enacted, but whether patients will benefit from the re-enactment is obscured by what seems like miles of red tape. First, there are only three qualifying conditions that allow one access to MMJ: spastic quadriplegia, symptoms from chemotherapy for cancer treatment and glaucoma. Nevertheless, an annual report must be submitted by the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners (LSBME) that could potentially expand the list of eligible patients.

The second major hurdle is getting physicians to actually prescribe MMJ as doing so will put them at risk on a federal level to lose their licenses to prescribe other medications.

And finally, only 10 existing pharmacies within Louisiana are allowed to dispense cannabis with the “lowest acceptable therapeutic levels available through scientifically accepted methods,” according to the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. And these 10 pharmacies can only source their MMJ extracts from a state-sanctioned producer.

Currently, Louisiana State University and Southern University have the right of first refusal to be that supplier, either jointly or independently, and if both refuse, production will be left open to a public bid for a single supplier. By December 1, 2016, the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy will set forth their rules for use, dispensing, supply, quality, testing and licensure.

While SB 143 needs serious work to make MMJ a realistic alternative to traditional treatment, the other bill signed by Governor Jindal, HB 149, may have more of an immediate impact on the lives of Louisianans.

“We've started not just last year, but since I've been governor,” Governor Jindal said in response to the question of lowering penalties. “And last year, we accelerated that—looking to lower those penalties. I agree with the president that we lock up too many people for casual drug use. What I mean by that is that non-violent, non-repeat offenders, those that aren't committing other crimes, we should look at treatment and rehabilitation.”

On June 29, 2015, Jindal signed HB 149, sponsored by Rep. Austin Badon, Jr. (D), that reduces the maximum fines and jail time one can receive from possessing less than 60 pounds of cannabis. For first time offenders found in possession of 14 grams or less, jail time is reduced from a maximum of six months to 15 days and the maximum fine decreases from $500 to $300, though the penalties for possession of more than 14 grams remains unchanged. In addition to the decrease in penalties for those possessing small amounts of marijuana, if two years have passed since a first time offense, the second offense will be treated as a first offense, but this grace period is only allowed once.

Second-time offenders possessing small amounts of cannabis will now only face misdemeanor charges instead of a felony, and the maximum amount of jail time for those possessing less than two and a half pounds for personal use is now eight years.

While these punishments are still rather draconian, Louisiana previously had the nation’s toughest laws for repeat cannabis offenders. For example, prior to HB 149, a third offense for cannabis possession could net 20 years hard labor in prison. The change marks a major step in the effort to reform drug-sentencing laws, and hopefully it pushes the conservative South that much closer to legalization.

“I’m not for the legalization [of marijuana],” Governor Jindal said. “The full legalization of marijuana has been done in Colorado. But certainly, I think that it makes sense.”

While policy makers continue to keep one eye on the effect of legalization in states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, it may be years before recreational users and even MMJ patients can walk into a dispensary and purchase legal cannabis. But with the passage of more bills like the ones mentioned above, the policies and public mindset are changing incrementally toward the end of prohibition.

Photo credit: Unsplash.

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