- Associated Press - Thursday, April 15, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A House Republican leader’s bid to expand Louisiana’s medical marijuana program and allow smokable cannabis started to gain traction Thursday, as lawmakers advanced a bill that would tax the new therapeutic products.

Louisiana’s dispensaries sell medical marijuana in liquids, topical applications, inhalers and edible gummies.

Houma Rep. Tanner Magee, the House’s second-ranking Republican, is proposing to authorize sales of raw, smokable marijuana for medical use - and to apply state sales tax to those products if lawmakers allow them.

The House Ways and Means Committee agreed without objection Thursday to the bill applying the state’s 4.45% sales tax rate and dedicating the money generated to transportation projects. Lawmakers advanced the proposal to the full House for debate, even as some expressed concern about levying a tax on medicine, which is not done on any prescription drugs in Louisiana.

A nonpartisan financial analysis of the tax bill estimated Louisiana could eventually receive up to $12 million a year from the sales taxes.



The tax bill - raising potentially millions for a backlog of road and bridge work - is seen as a way to potentially ease passage of Magee’s separate proposal to expand the program to allow sales of the smokable marijuana “flower,” starting in 2022. That bill has not yet received a hearing.

Magee said the medical marijuana program is overwhelmingly popular in Louisiana as a way to help people with an array of chronic conditions. But he said the raw, smokable plant product is cheaper to manufacture and sell because it involves less processing.

“This is what people want,” Magee said.

Several lawmakers on the committee told stories about friends and constituents who gained relief from medical marijuana or who had trouble obtaining it because of the cost.

“You spend six months in a chemo room with a bunch of patients who are suffering, it really gives you a perspective of the need to give all the relief we can to this population,” said Rep. Buddy Mincey, a Denham Springs Republican. “This is something that’s needed.”

Rep. Jason Hughes, a New Orleans Democrat, talked of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s use of medical marijuana when she was in hospice care struggling with cancer. Blanco died in 2019. Hughes, who had worked for Blanco when she was governor, said marijuana “really gave her comfort” at the end of her life.

Lawmakers have steadily expanded the medical marijuana program since enacting it in 2015.

Originally, the program was tightly limited to a few medical conditions. Under a change lawmakers passed last year, doctors in Louisiana can now recommend medical marijuana for any patient they believe it would help.

But only the agricultural centers at Louisiana State University and Southern University are authorized to grow cannabis in Louisiana, and only nine dispensaries can provide it to patients.

The sales tax under Magee’s bill would not apply to the existing medical marijuana products already for sale in Louisiana. Magee said several other states tax medical marijuana, but he said any concerns about the tax costs should be alleviated because the raw, smokable form of cannabis would be a cheaper product for patients.

David Brown, a longtime medical marijuana advocate and co-owner of one of Louisiana’s cannabis pharmacies, supported the expansion of the products available to patients, but opposed taxing it as an impediment to medication access.

He said 37 states have a medical marijuana program, and Louisiana is one of only four that does not allow sale of the marijuana “flower” in its raw form.

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The bills are filed as House Bills 391 and 514.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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