Louisiana smokable medical marijuana bill starts advancing

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This Aug. 22, 2019 photo shows medical marijuana plants being grown before flowering during a media tour of the Curaleaf medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Ravena, N.Y. After legislative efforts stalled and a vaping sickness stirred new concerns, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut still want to make recreational pot legal. But the states have different approaches and timeframes, and some proposals have shifted since last year. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A bid to expand Louisiana’s medical marijuana program to allow patients to smoke cannabis sailed through its first review Thursday, as a once contentious program has become more entrenched as a legitimate medical treatment.

The House Health and Welfare Committee voted 12-1 with little debate for the expansion proposal offered by Houma Rep. Tanner Magee, the House’s second-ranking Republican. Support from the committee was bipartisan, representing a broad range of the political spectrum.

“This is wildly popular in every corner of the state. This is what people want. And it’s medication that people need,” Magee told the committee.

Louisiana’s dispensaries sell medical marijuana in liquids, topical applications, inhalers and edible gummies. But they are barred from offering raw marijuana in smokable form. Magee’s bill would legalize that as well for medicinal purposes, starting in January.

The proposal heads next to the full House for debate.

The raw, smokable marijuana plant is cheaper to manufacture and sell because it involves less processing. Magee said offering that option would help patients with chronic conditions who have trouble affording the products currently available in Louisiana’s medical marijuana pharmacies.

Committee Chairman Larry Bagley, a Republican from Stonewall, said a recent poll of voters in his district, which he described as “very conservative,” showed overwhelming support for the medical marijuana program to ease patients’ suffering and improve their quality of life.

“This is all about trying to make life better,” Bagley said.

The only lawmaker to vote against the measure was Rep. Robby Carter, a Democrat from Amite who represents a rural district. He didn’t speak about his opposition during the committee discussion of the bill.

As he seeks to broaden the medical marijuana program, Magee also is proposing to tax the new therapeutic products that would be available if the House and Senate back the expansion bill.

separate measure from Magee that won passage from the House in a 71-24 vote Wednesday would apply the state’s 4.45% sales tax to smokable medical marijuana products — but not to the current cannabis products offered to patients. The dollars raised would be earmarked to transportation projects.

A nonpartisan financial analysis of the tax bill estimated Louisiana could eventually receive up to $12 million a year from the sales taxes. That proposal awaits debate in the Senate.

Lawmakers have steadily expanded the medical marijuana program since enacting it in 2015.

Originally, the program was tightly limited to a few medical conditions. Under a change lawmakers passed last year, doctors in Louisiana can now recommend medical marijuana for any patient they believe it would help.

But only the agricultural centers at Louisiana State University and Southern University are authorized to grow cannabis in Louisiana, and only nine dispensaries can provide it to patients.

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The bills are filed as House Bills 391 and 514.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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