Technically, medical cannabis has been legal in Louisiana since 1978, when Governor Edwin Edwards signed a bill allowing doctors to “prescribe” it to chemotherapy patients. But it took the daughter of a sheriff, advocating on behalf of patients like herself more than 30 years later, to finally win over Louisiana law enforcement officials. Four years after its passage, the law in her name is finally about to bear fruit.
“I credit Alison Neustrom herself with helping pass the bill in 2015,” State Senator Fred Mills wrote to Cannabis Wire. Mills, a trained pharmacist, drafted a plan to implement a safe and regulated medical cannabis program back in 2013, but was blocked in the senate’s health committee thanks to the state attorney general and the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, after both lobbied hard against the bill. Mills needed a champion, and he found one in Neustrom:
“She was a courageous young mother who worked tirelessly in Baton Rouge as a social worker to help disenfranchised children and families and just as she was starting her own family, learned that she had a very aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. Her testimony on the bill in 2014 was so moving because everyone knew her, and with her support, the stigma of medical marijuana being perceived as relief for ‘drug users’ was finally broken.”
Neustrom died before the bill, renamed the Alison Neustrom Act, was signed into law in 2015, but thanks to her and Mills, an estimated 1,441 patients in Louisiana suffering from nine conditions are inches from the finish line on medical cannabis. After a bumpy start to the program, the first sample products passed a final round of safety testing last week. If all goes according to plan, 4,500 bottles of CBD and THC tinctures will reach licensed pharmacies on Tuesday, according to GB Sciences and Tabitha Irvin of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
It’s been a long journey. The crop was grown and processed by GB Sciences Louisiana, a subsidiary of the Las Vegas-based firm, for the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center, which holds the state’s only production license jointly with Southern University. The arrangement is unique among states that have legalized medical cannabis. According to Mills’s office, it came from a last-minute request by law enforcement to restrict the number of licenses to one, leading lawmakers to draw comparisons to the state’s history with licensing in other marginal industries like riverboat gaming. That situation—when Louisiana legalized gambling but capped the number of casino licenses at fifteen back in the 1990s—resulted in an extortion scandal that landed four-term governor Edwin Edwards in federal prison on racketeering charges in 2000.
The legislature also wanted to ensure that profits gleaned from medical cannabis orders would cycle back into public coffers. A motion to issue the license to the Louisiana State Penitentiary—a major agricultural producer in the state—was nixed because “growing a Schedule I illegal drug on prison property seemed questionable,” according to Mills’s office. That led lawmakers to grant the state universities right of first refusal.
Like the prison idea, the prospect of growing an illegal narcotic at a public university raised eyebrows, not least among LSU’s administrators.The school took a year to research and develop a project concept, including a trip to Washington that featured what the program coordinator, Ashley Mullens, describes as a “very tense meeting with the DEA.”
“The decision was made to keep it as separate as possible,” Mullens said. Concretely, that meant finding a site away from campus for the greenhouse and contracting with an outside firm to oversee production. The contractor pays LSU for the privilege of operating under its license, and only one AgCenter employee—Mullens—works directly with the grower. Mullens is clear that “None of our federal funds have touched this project.”
The university’s call for bids to serve as grower garnered seven responses. In the end GB Sciences Louisiana beat out CB Medical in the final round of bidding, offering LSU 89% of the net cash flow from the project, or $18 million over seven years. The company also did well securing local investors, Mullens said, and had “very impressive intellectual property potential,” including provisional patent applications for medicine for Crohn’s disease as well as spasticity treatments.
In its application, GB Sciences also stated that “it can conservatively achieve 5,000 patients by 2021” through a $300,000 annual investment in a nonprofit to educate Louisianians—including doctors and lawmakers—about the benefits of medical cannabis. If the state’s medical cannabis market was completely opened up, so that licensed doctors could recommend cannabis-based medicines to patients suffering from conditions beyond the nine outlined in the Alison Neustrom Act, the company estimates a statewide market of more than 37,000 patients, based on other states’ per capita patient averages.
Awarded the contract in June 2017, GB Sciences set about constructing a production facility in south Baton Rouge, but soon butted heads with the regulator, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
As Mullens explains it, Louisiana continued drawing from its gaming industry laws as it grappled with how to regulate cannabis. One such regulation stipulated that no one could enter the greenhouse until every employee and shareholder had been vetted by state authorities, including background and credit checks. Any drug history, including possession of marijuana, precludes applicants from working at the grow facility. The production team was still working out of a temporary structure in November 2018 when it sent its first concentrate samples to the Department of Agriculture for initial testing.
The department received the samples during Thanksgiving week, its press secretary, Veronica Mosgrove, told Cannabis Wire. Working during the holidays with little precedent or established protocol, she says, the department took five working weeks to report on the first samples, returning them in January 2019. Accusations of foot-dragging ensued. (Testing on the second batch, Mosgrove is quick to point out, took less than a week.) Then in March 2019, a public tiff sprang up between the growers and the regulator, when GB Sciences staff began moving plants into the facility. The space had passed inspection, but the required background checks still hadn’t been completed.
Following the incident, GB Sciences and the AgCenter put out some tersely worded press releases demanding the Department of Agriculture allow the program to proceed.
“The challenge is this” Tabitha Irvin, Medical Marijuana Director for the Department of Agriculture, told Cannabis Wire, “The way it’s set up here is different from other states—we have two state agencies that are licensees and we are actually making a medicinal product. The challenge is making sure it’s safe and that the laws are being followed.”
The other licensee, Southern University, lagged behind after its grower, Advance Biomedics, defaulted on its contract. The company has since been purchased by another firm, Ilera Holistic Healthcare, which is taking over the medical cannabis project. A new facility in Baker, Louisiana, passed inspection on July 22, according to local news reports. The project’s lead researcher, Janana Snowden, did not respond to requests for comment.
Since March, meanwhile, the LSU AgCenter and the Department of Agriculture seem to have reconciled, with both parties asserting that they are working well together and moving as fast as they can to get a safe product out to patients.
For now, the AgCenter is only releasing tinctures, but other products, such as lozenges and transdermal patches, are slated to follow.
Asked how long it will take to test the tinctures that were collected on July 29, Irvin replied with certainty: “Seven days,” later adding that it could be even sooner.
On Friday, Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain announced that everything had checked out, and GB Sciences could finally start distributing the product to the nine Louisiana pharmacies licensed to dispense it. With the first sales delayed by more than a year compared to GB Sciences’ planned timeline, the company has still been on the hook to LSU, with “guaranteed minimum payments” due of $1 million for the first year of the contract in 2017, followed by $600,000 annually for the next six years.
Mullens, for her part, has kept a sense of humor. She sums up the long road the project has taken with a verbal shrug: “Louisiana always takes a lot longer.”