- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana legalized medical marijuana in 1991. But the idea of getting medical-grade pot to those suffering from cancer, glaucoma and a severe form of cerebral palsy was long considered a pipe dream.

That is likely to change.

On Thursday, the state House voted 70-29 in favor of a medical marijuana bill that previously passed the Senate. The bill returns for a final vote in the Senate, which approved an earlier version. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will then go to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who says he will sign it.

Though medical marijuana has been legal for more than 20 years, the law was essentially meaningless because the state never developed a framework to get the drug to patients. Meanwhile, those who could benefit suffered, said Sen. Fred Mills, a Parks Republican who sponsored the current bill.

Doctors, families and those with serious illness have advocated for Louisiana to join the 38 other states with some form of medical marijuana, he said.

“These are people saying ‘Why can’t I have this? Other states have it,’” said Mills, who is a pharmacist.

As the legitimacy of medical marijuana has grown, Mills said, requests he gets have changed, too, from people who say, “I’m using it and I don’t want to keep breaking the law.”

Mills’ proposal would allow patients to consume refined forms of marijuana but will prohibit smoking the plant. He said the refined product is therapeutic but won’t get patients high.

Until recently, the state’s powerful law enforcement associations were lockstep in opposition.

But that changed this year after the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association chose not to oppose the bill. Their stance was the result of passionate advocacy by Alison Neustrom, the terminally ill daughter of the Lafayette Parish sheriff for whom the bill is named and who died before she could see it reach final passage.

“We’re talking about very sick people who are suffering,” Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said during House debate. “This isn’t about anybody getting some type of euphoria or using it for recreation.”

Not everyone agrees. The Louisiana District Attorney Association remains opposed. And several lawmakers cautioned that the proposal would create an industry ripe for abuse.

“I don’t want this to be the first chapter of the book about how corrupt the licensing process is,” said Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge.

Said Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville: “We’re opening this up for corruption.”

As written, Mills’ proposal would have tight controls on the use and distribution of the drug. Only 10 pharmacies in the state could fill prescriptions. The Department of Agriculture and Forestry would oversee Louisiana’s sole cultivation facility, and patients prescribed the drug would be closely monitored.

Those restrictions didn’t go far enough for some, who predicted medical marijuana will be the gateway to legalization.

“I’ve seen people use marijuana to the extent that it has destroyed their lives,” said Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Livingston.

But Mills, who worked with law enforcement to draft the bill, said the fear is unfounded.

The goal was “to find the balance between law enforcement needs and what a cancer patient needs. And I think we’ve found that balance,” Mills said.

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Online:

Senate Bill 143: www.legis.la.gov

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