The House of Representatives on Wednesday (May 11) passed medical marijuana legislation designed to allow patients access to the drug nearly 40 years after the state first legalized the drug in the late 1970s.
The bill passed by a much wider margin than expected, 61-32, clearing the lower chamber after a series of personal appeals made by House members who urged fellow members to vote in favor. The bill now heads back to the Senate, where the upper chamber is expected to pass the bill that came out of the House with a relatively minor change.
“The wait was excruciating, but so worth it,” said medical marijuana advocate Katie Corkern, who wants to treat her son Connor’s epilepsy with the drug. “I woke up this morning and was thinking, it’s not going to pass because I’ve been doing so much research. There were people who I thought were definitely going to vote for it who changed their minds.”
The most sweeping medical marijuana bill to move through the legislature is now headed for a vote of the House of Representatives, where it faces a tough fight.
The sweeping legislation seeks to provide a specific type of medical marijuana product — an oil pressed from the plant — that contains extremely low levels of the chemicals that make it a psychotropic drug. It allows for doctors to “recommend” the drug rather than prescribe it, which doctors need to avoid risking their DEA license allowing them to prescribe narcotics.
The governor made his comments during a news conference ahead of the House floor debate on medical marijuana.
The bill had been the subject of intense lobbying from both advocacy groups and parents of children who suffer from debilitating illnesses they believe could be treated with the drug. In an unusual move, a spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards said First Lady Donna Edwards had been calling House members urging them to pass it.
But it was far from clear whether the bill would pass when debate began after 6 p.m. House members used time during the debate to raise concerns about whether medical marijuana is a path to legalization. They also pointed out that the influential sheriffs and district attorneys opposed the bill after removing their opposition to similar legislation last year.
Sheriffs have expressed concern that legalizing medical marijuana is a path to legalization, which the bill’s author, state Sen. Fred Mills, has denied. Mills, a Parks Republican, has said the bill is tightly written to prevent recreational use, however.
But to underline the concern about the drug getting in the wrong hands, state Rep. Sherman Mack proposed changing the bill to make medical marijuana possession a felony.
“Lets do something to safeguard that,” Mack, an Albany Republican said. “Let’s make sure it’s going to the intended purpose, which is to help sick kids.”
But Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, objected to Mack’s proposal, saying it would only lead to more people being imprisoned for drug use.
“Haven’t we led to the highest incarceration rate in the world?” Magee said. “You are only adding to a failed strategy.”
And state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, pointed out that the state last year lowered penalties for marijuana possession.
“Do you think this would be more harmful to someone than Oxycontin?” Nancy Landry said of the prescription opioid narcotic that addiction experts have cited as a path to heroin addiction.
Mack’s proposal ultimately failed on a 32-62 vote.
Rep. Terry Landry sought to reassure members that the public is largely in favor of such legislation. Advocates began circulating a poll last week that showed 72 percent of Louisianians supported medical marijuana legislation.
“The fear that people are going to vote against it at home just doesn’t hold water,” Rep. Terry Landry said. “The notion that this leads to legalization is nonsense. It’s fear mongering.”
State Rep. Mike Huval was one of those offering personal testimony about family members who suffered from a condition that would be eligible for medical marijuana treatment. Huval said that had his brother, David, had access to medical marijuana, “the pain he endured hopefully would’ve been taken care of by this miracle medication.
“Before you vote today, will this miracle drug maybe be needed by someone you love?” Huval, a Breaux Bridge Republican, said. “Please consider that.”
State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, carried the bill for Mills in the House and told the body that it would be between 18 months and two years before the drug could reach patients. Southern University and LSU have a right of first refusal to produce the drug they must exercise by September.
If the universities decline to produce the drug, the state would allow the drug to be produced by a private entity.