Louisiana has become the first state in the Deep South to open medical marijuana dispensaries. Four years since state lawmakers voted in favor of therapeutic cannabis, registered pharmacies started dispensing marijuana products to patients across the state last week.

On Thursday, August 1, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain announced that following final testing, GB Sciences, one of two state-sanctioned growers, could start shipping out medical marijuana to licensed dispensaries. Louisiana has so far allowed nine dispensaries, but not all are yet operational.

In 2015, state legislators approved the legal framework for the medical marijuana program, but regulatory disputes between GB Sciences, authorized growers and state regulators delayed the process of getting cannabis to hundreds of patients awaiting its release to pharmacies.

State Sen. Fred Mills, who sponsored the bill and is a pharmacist himself, didn’t expect the process would take so many years. He said people with cancer and other debilitating conditions would call him to ask when cannabis would be finally available, and that “the toughest thing has been not being able to give people a definitive timeline that they could make plans for.” 

The Louisiana State University and Southern University agricultural centers are the only entities licensed to grow medicinal-grade marijuana. Some cannabis advocates claimed that Louisiana’s agriculture department created unnecessary obstacles which prevented the products from reaching patients sooner.

In the meantime, Southern University discontinued cooperation with the first grower it chose, and found a new one. The current contractor, Ilera Holistic Healthcare, planted its first crop only a couple of weeks ago, and will release its first batch of medical marijuana no earlier than the fall.

The 2015 law and subsequent amendments allow physicians in Louisiana to recommend medical marijuana for a wide range of medical conditions, including cancer, seizures, glaucoma, PTSD and Parkinson’s disease. Eighty-eight medical practitioners across the state are authorized to offer patients cannabis in the form of oils, creams, liquids, pills and inhalers. Smokable marijuana is not permitted in Louisiana.

As insurance doesn’t cover the cost of medical cannabis, patients will have to pay the price set by individual dispensaries out of pocket. Randy Mire, who owns Capitol Wellness Solutions in Baton Rouge and hosted an opening ceremony at his dispensary on Tuesday, August 6, said that the price of the cannabis products he sells will range from $99 to $200 each.

Nevertheless, patients waiting to be able to purchase cannabis were relieved to hear the announcement of the agriculture department.

Combat veteran Gary Hess, one of the first patients to purchase medical marijuana in Louisiana, said that trying cannabis in California changed his life.

“It has become a reality to my family this morning, waking up and knowing that I would be able to go home and for the first time in my long struggle, I’ll be able to do this legally in front of my family,” he told reporters. “That’s incredible.”

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