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Louisiana lawmaker committee debates medical marijuana costs and votes to expand the program

The high price of medical marijuana products in Louisiana is pushing low-income patients into the black market, a patient advocate told lawmakers Wednesday.

State Rep. Rodney Lyons, a Harvey Democrat, proposed a bill that would limit the retail price of medical marijuana to double the wholesale price, while requiring the state-approved pharmacies to offer delivery. Patients pay more than $100 for a tincture that can be purchased in Arkansas for $40, speakers said.

Katelyn Castleberry, head of the state chapter of Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, said patients in rural areas who can’t afford the product instead are getting cheap opioid prescriptions then selling the pills on the black market so they can afford the marijuana tincture they want. She said rural patients often have trouble getting to one of the nine operating state-approved pharmacies; under the program, the number of pharmacies is limited by law.

“What we have done, through our over-regulation, is make sure that our rural areas are deeply invested in the black market,” she said.

The original version of Lyons’ House Bill 807 called for removing the cap on the number of pharmacies. Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, said he would prefer to lift the cap and allow the free market to dictate prices, rather than imposing price controls. But the state sheriffs’ association opposed that provision, saying it would make regulating the program more difficult, and the bill was amended to keep the cap in place.

Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, noted that the pharmacies made investments to participate in the program based on what the rules were at the time. He said he was worried about putting price controls on the program and called requiring delivery an “unfunded mandate.” Testimony Wednesday indicated patients pay for the service with the pharmacies that already offer it.

Jessie McCormick, a lobbyist who spoke against the bill on behalf of the existing pharmacies, said companies in Louisiana’s medical marijuana industry can’t get bank loans and are not eligible for standard business tax deductions. He also stressed that the program still is very new.

“We can see the prices coming down,” he said.

Sensing the committee’s mood, Lyons voluntarily deferred his bill, which means he might have the opportunity to try again. The regular session ends June 1.

The state House Committee on Health and Welfare advanced a few bills that would add new conditions that would make patients eligible for the medical marijuana program. The bills are being treated as backups in case House Bill 819 by Health and Welfare Chairman Larry Bagley doesn’t pass.

Bagley’s bill not only would add nine eligible conditions to the program, it would give doctors discretion to recommend medical marijuana to patients who don’t have a specifically listed condition.