BATON ROUGE, La. – For a moment, newly available medical marijuana flower was a hot commodity in Louisiana, drawing thousands of new patients and huge lines to the state’s nine authorized pharmacies. Then it was gone.
Pharmacies across the state reported supply disruptions less than two weeks after flower became available at the start of 2022. And patients have complained of high costs, long waits and caps on the amount they can buy.
Industry leaders say things will get better with time, as more supply becomes available and patient demand stabilizes. Despite shortages this week, a new batch is expected to hit the shelves soon after product cleared state testing Friday.
Still, legislative leaders and advocates are pushing for the state to break up the duopoly of growers and oligopoly of pharmacies and turn the program loose into the free market – or at least a freer one. Some are pointing to the growing pains of the past two weeks as evidence it’s time.
The push to license more pot businesses is the latest in a yearslong effort to bring Louisiana’s medical marijuana program – once a tightly regulated product of negotiations with anti-marijuana law enforcement groups – more in line with those of other states. The addition of flower, the most popular form of the drug, which patients can smoke, was the biggest step yet.
It also opened up what is expected to be the most lucrative segment of the market. Nationally, marijuana flower is the most popular form of the drug, and pharmacies are reporting a big increase in patients, which is expected to continue.
In Louisiana, the number of patients who received medical marijuana in the fourth quarter of 2021 rose 23% from the previous quarter, to north of 18,000, according to Board of Pharmacy data. Since the program’s inception, more than 35,000 patients have gotten marijuana recommendations from a doctor. The next snapshot of patient count for the first part of this year will be released in a few months.
The Apothecary Shoppe, the sole approved marijuana pharmacy for the Acadiana region, filled about 3,100 “recommendations” – basically prescriptions – in the month of December, said Blair Vidrine, a spokesperson. In the first seven days of January, after flower hit the shelves, it filled about 2,200.
“We’re going to beat our month in probably about 10 working days,” Vidrine said. “Massive influx for sure.”
But like other pharmacies, the Apothecary Shoppe had to pause flower sales after running out of product. Pharmacies on the north shore, New Orleans and in Houma also reported running out.
Exactly what’s behind the shortage is not clear. LSU’s marijuana-growing partner, Good Day Farm, declined to comment. Pharmacy owners said growers told them the delays were a result of slowdowns in the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s testing system.
LDAF, which is run by Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, cleared north of 300 pounds of flower from testing Friday, according to figures provided by the agency. That comes after 150 pounds was initially sold to pharmacies ahead of the rollout of flower on Jan. 3.
Even in the short time that flower was on the shelves, there were other problems. Patients complained about the costs, which were much higher than in other states. And they had to wait in hours-long lines in some places, only to be limited on how much flower they could buy, as pharmacies tried to stretch their supplies.
Kevin Caldwell, Southeast legislative manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he doesn’t have faith that the current system – in which growers and pharmacies are limited in number – will meet demands efficiently and cheaply.
“I look forward to seeing when the growers start producing more strains for patients,” Caldwell said. “At this point, the price point is too high for the vast majority of poor and working-class Louisianans.”
Lawmakers were already exploring what changes should be made to the program when flower hit the shelves this month. Rep. Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna, took an interest in the program after his late father, who had ALS, saw relief from taking medical marijuana tinctures. He said he filed a bill last year at the behest of his colleague Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, to give the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission what would have been Louisiana’s third grower’s license, an effort shot down in the Legislature.
Afterward, Marino started up the Medical Marijuana Commission to make recommendations on changing the program ahead of this year’s regular legislative session, which starts March 14. Other lawmakers started up a separate commission to explore legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Marino said it’s hard to gauge how flower sales are going from the first few weeks, and it will take time to determine what demand will look like.
Regardless, he noted Louisiana patients pay more and have less access because of the limited number of pharmacies. LSU and Southern University hold the only grower’s licenses, and both partnered with private companies. The nine approved pharmacies were picked by the Board of Pharmacy through a competitive bid a few years ago. By comparison, Arkansas has 38 licensed dispensaries and eight licensed growers.
“I think opening up to more competition would first of all lead to lower prices, but also more (strains),” Marino said.
Currently, the growers have only put three different strains of flower on the shelves, but say more varieties are on the way. LSU’s growing partner, Good Day Farm, also has said its new facility in Ruston will eventually be able to grow enough marijuana to meet the entire patient demand in Louisiana, based on the projected uptake rates drawn from other states.
Marino doesn’t understand the logic of the limited marketplace. “Name another medicine the state of Louisiana limits the number of people who can produce it and where it can be sold,” Marino said.
The effort to expand licenses will likely prove contentious in the upcoming regular legislative session. Good Day Farm staffed up its lobbyist ranks over the past year, hiring four lobbyists in August. They join John Davis, the president of the firm, who is married to state Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge. The previous iteration of Good Day Farm, called Wellcana, reported hiring the well-known lobbyist father-son duo of Randy and Ryan Haynie about a year ago, and they continue to represent Good Day Farm. Ilera Holistic Healthcare, Southern University’s grower, employs two lobbyists as well.
Louisiana’s marijuana laws were crafted to include tight regulations, and a limited number of licenses, to appease a conservative Legislature that was sympathetic to sheriffs and district attorneys who didn’t like the idea of medical marijuana.
Last year, when Marino’s proposal to add JEDCO to the grower’s list came before the House Health and Welfare Committee, Rep. Larry Bagley, the chair, said the committee thought it was too early to expand, and members wanted to “let Southern and LSU make some money” after their growers invested millions in the program.
Now, Bagley said it’s time to open the door wider, and he intends to file bills to do just that.
“I know there’s going to be some lobbyists hired on both sides,” Bagley said. “That’s kind of the way the system is. I hope everybody looks at it from what’s going to be most helpful for the citizens. Not what’s going to be most helpful to my pocketbook.”