After more than a year of confusion between the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) and its two medical marijuana license holders, it appears that a limited supply of flower will be made available to patients in May. The broader roll-out of the program, formally approved by lawmakers in 2016, will have to wait until August at the earliest.
Louisiana State University and Southern University, both based in Baton Rouge, hold the state’s two medical marijuana licenses. According to the state law, both must work with a private business partner to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana products. LSU contracted with Nevada-based GB Sciences in 2017; Southern first contracted with Advanced Biomedics, a Louisiana company, before scrapping the partnership and signing on with Pennsylvania-based Ilera Holistic Healthcare.
The process for both universities to get up and running as a cannabis cultivator has been anything but straightforward. For LSU, however, the road was particularly bumpy, starting with Louisiana Agricultural Commissioner Mike Strain repeatedly and publicly referencing administrative delays between the state’s regulatory timeline and the university and its business partner’s required paperwork. Only on March 22, a year and a half after inking a contract with the school, was GB Sciences allowed to begin growing cannabis in its main facility at LSU.
"The LSU AgCenter and GB Sciences Louisiana have worked diligently on this initiative since GB's selection in September 2017,” LSU Vice President for Agriculture William Richardson said in a public statement. “We are very happy to have this milestone completed and we look forward to getting this much-needed product out to the patients of Louisiana.”
Medical marijuana patient advocates are demanding that product be widely available by May 15.
Prior to moving into the main facility this past week, GB Sciences had harvested two cannabis crops in a small modular facility on LSU’s campus. The LDAF holds the sole lab-testing authority in the Louisiana and has not yet completed final testing on the company’s cannabis concentrate products intended for sale. Earlier this year, LDAF tossed the independent testing lab license applications and took on the work itself, another move that provoked public outcry.
“Since every circumstance is different, each contested result is handled on a case-by-case basis, so we don't have a particular policy in place,” spokeswoman Laura Lindsay told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “With that said, the lab will treat contested results of medical marijuana in the same manner that any other contested results of any other substance that is regulated by the department. Typically, if a result is contested, we will contract with an outside lab to confirm the specific contest result.”
As of now, the state is working through the final testing on early batches of cannabis concentrates produced at GB Sciences’ modular facility. “We’re going to do everything that’s under our roof to aim for that date,” John Davis, GB Sciences Louisiana president, said at a March 25 “stakeholders meeting” in response to questions about whether cannabis products will be available by May 15.
Just three weeks ago, the mood was less optimistic, and Strain was publicly deriding the department’s relationship with LSU. “They’ve fought the law every step of the way,” he told the USA Today Network in early March, describing the school’s regulatory obligations. “We’ve sent them a notice that they’re in violation of the law and we’ll proceed to a [court hearing].”
Public records tell a different story.
Dr. Ashley Mullens, coordinator of the LSU AgCenter, had sent a letter to the state’s director of the medical marijuana program three weeks prior to Strain’s accusations, on Feb. 13, in an attempt to outline the records of LSU’s attempts to meet state demands. Mullens’ letter (embedded below), chronicles 18 months of back-and-forth disputes and long stretches of radio silence among state agencies—including the Gaming Enforcement Division of the Louisiana State Police, responsible for “suitability” checks of medical marijuana license applicants.
The letter details a series of miscommunications and contradictions, leaving GB Sciences in the position of resubmitting paperwork and amending “deficiencies” that were never made entirely clear. “Since August 2017, [GB Sciences Louisiana] and other entities/individuals have been working towards compliance with LDAF’s request suitability process,” Mullens wrote. “[GB Sciences Louisiana] has responded to each request and supplemental request. It would be a misrepresentation of the documented history to suggest that [GB Sciences Louisiana] has only recently submitted suitability information.”
The confusion continued into 2019, with GB submitting several new suitability applications to the state—applications for individuals who’d been identified for the first time by Louisiana State Police in December 2018. “As a result, [GB Sciences Louisiana] was required to start a process over that it attempted to begin in August 2017.”
Only in February did the fog begin to part.
On Feb. 28, Tabitha Irvin, the state’s director of the medical marijuana program, wrote to Mullens and said: “After careful consideration and in an effort to get the product to the pharmacies for the citizens of Louisiana, the commissioner of agriculture and forestry has decided to grant LSU AgCenter the authority to move plant material into the requested rooms (Mother room and Vegetative room) in the main facility.”
GB Sciences did so, and the state immediately insisted that the company had violated the “law, rules and regulations” of the state’s medical marijuana program—initiating the public duel that took place during March.
Now, though, nearly three years after a medical marijuana industry was legalized in Louisiana, patients may soon have access to cannabis products.
Southern University’s partner, Ilera Holistic Healthcare, has not yet started growing cannabis plants.