BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As Louisiana’s medical marijuana program edges closer to kickoff, only two doctors in the state have applied for permission to dispense the drug, raising questions about whether patients struggling with chronic pain and suffering will gain access to the treatment they lobbied so hard to get.
One application for the permit required to offer medical-grade cannabis to patients has been approved for a Baton Rouge physician, while the other application is under review, according to information provided to The Associated Press by the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners in response to a public records request.
The pharmacist who sponsored the state’s 2015 and 2016 therapeutic marijuana laws said he’s not worried just yet.
Sen. Fred Mills, a St. Martin Parish Republican, hopes to see an uptick in permit requests from doctors early next year when the growing operations have started, medical marijuana sales are only months away, and patients start asking how they’ll get it.
“I feel that the people I’ve met, the 400 or 500 families of people who have the debilitating diseases, they are going to go to their physicians and say, ‘Please, I want to try this,’” Mills said.
Vincent Culotta, a doctor and executive director of the Board of Medical Examiners, didn’t offer an explanation for the low interest physicians have shown so far, saying in an email he had “no thoughts at this time, no patterns available to analyze.”
Doctors disagree on the benefits of medical marijuana, and the program’s creation was controversial in the conservative Southern state. Sheriffs and district attorneys opposed therapeutic marijuana as opening the door to eventually legalizing recreational marijuana, but lawmakers sided with parents who described moving to Colorado to lessen their children’s suffering and who launched billboards and social media campaigns.
Gov. John Bel Edwards promised “tight controls” for the program, and reams of regulations have been issued to govern growing operations, dispensing pharmacies and doctors with permits.
Louisiana’s law will eventually get the drug to people with cancer, a severe form of cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and other diseases. Marijuana can be available in medicinal oils, pills, sprays and topical applications, but cannot be sold in a form that can be smoked.
Doctors won’t issue a prescription, but instead a “physician recommendation form,” a legal nuance aimed at keeping doctors from jeopardizing their medical licenses because federal law prohibits prescribing marijuana.
Only the agricultural centers at LSU and Southern University are allowed to grow medicinal-grade cannabis. LSU estimates the product will be available by the summer — but only available if doctors have obtained a permit to recommend it.
Katie Corkern lobbied lawmakers for years in support of medical marijuana, showing up during debates with her son in his wheelchair and pleading for a drug that his neurologist says could help control his seizures.
“I’m obviously disheartened that it’s taking a long time and so many people in Louisiana are still having to suffer without this medicine. But I’m trying to be patient, because I want them to get it right the first time,” Corkern said Wednesday.
Corkern’s 10-year-old son Connor suffers through six different forms of seizures that rip across his body all day long, some so severe they’ve caused busted lips and blackened eyes, triggered by a rare brain malformation diagnosed when he was 6 weeks old.
“We don’t really know a life without hundreds of seizures a day,” Corkern said.
She expected some reticence from doctors. But despite the low number of applicants for the permit to offer the drug to patients, Corkern remains hopeful the program will eventually be successful.
The state’s “super-conservative, and doctors don’t want to be the first ones to jump in the pool, but I think it will grow,” she said. “I’m confident that once the doctors do take this leap of faith in recommending it to their patients, other physicians will see the success in easing patients’ suffering.”