BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A bill that would have expanded access to medical marijuana in Louisiana was shelved Wednesday in House committee.
The sponsor of HB 1112, Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, asked to voluntarily defer the measure after realizing there was insufficient support. Instead, he said he would work with a senator sponsoring a medical marijuana measure that already successfully made it through the Senate.
Before the deferment, the House Health and Welfare Committee debated James' bill for well over two hours. James opened the discussion by asking that lawmakers keep an open mind, saying the bill was about helping families and individuals access marijuana in cases where it could help ease medical pain.
"This bill is about providing a level of care to our constituents, and I don't want you to get bogged down in your fears about what may happen," James said.
The bill would expand the number of diseases where medical marijuana could be used legally for treatment in Louisiana, including for diseases causing seizures.
It also would provide legal protections for those growing and distributing the drug. As part of an amendment, the LSU and Southern University Agricultural Centers would get the right of first refusal to grow the cannabis before private entities would be allowed to apply.
Finally, the bill would allow physicians to "recommend" the drug rather than prescribe it, as they were allowed to do in previous legislation. If they were to prescribe it, it could put their medical licenses at risk.
Actually smoking pot would still not be legal.
Still, a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers objected to the bill, joining members of law enforcement and the Louisiana Sheriff's Association in fearing that the bill could open the door to illegal drug use and eventual decriminalization overall.
"That's our specific responsibility as lawmakers to think these things through carefully and to anticipate and guard against unintended consequences," said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City.
James admitted the bill is not perfect, but said doing nothing was "unacceptable."
"Will you have some bad actors? Yes. Will we save lives? Yes. I'm more focused on the lives being saved," James said.
One of those in support of the measure was Michele Hall, who moved from Louisiana to Colorado one month ago in order to get access to medical marijuana for her 5-year-old adopted daughter, Ella. Ella suffers from epilepsy and Hall said the pharmaceuticals she was prescribed here in Louisiana were not enough.
"If I gave what I gave her to a junkie, they would be very pissed off," said Hall, who told the committee that the drug's impact was almost immediate.
She pleaded that the committee pass the bill so she could return home. She left her husband in Louisiana as part of the move. After James' decision to defer the bill, Hall described herself as "heartbroken."
"We still can't go home, we may not get to go home," she said, explaining that she is not sure how she is going to explain this to her children.
James now intends to back SB 271 by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks. It has already advanced through the Senate and will be appearing in House committee soon.