Louisiana is poised to officially become the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana. On May 16, the state senators approved the House's revisions to a bill that would officially allow patients to access marijuana for medicinal uses. The bill is now headed to the desk of Governor John Bel Edwards (D), who has said he would sign it and thereby make medical marijuana officially legal in Louisiana.
If you're wondering why we keep stressing the word "officially," it's because Louisiana was technically the first American state to legalize medical marijuana. When charting the origins of authorized cannabis in America, most people start with California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996. But that's almost 20 years after Louisiana actually legalized marijuana in 1978. However, the language of Louisiana's law prevented anyone from using it.
The confusion essentially surrounds the use of one word. Louisiana's bill allowed physicians to prescribe marijuana for medicinal use. But under federal law, physicians cannot legally prescribe cannabis or any other Schedule I drugs. But they can legally recommend marijuana for medicinal use, which is why other states have gotten around the law by using "recommend" in their bills. So the word "prescribe" has essentially tied the hands of doctors and barred patients from accessing cannabis in Louisiana.
The 2016 bill fixes that by replacing "prescribe" with "recommend," making the law functional. The bill also expands the number of approved conditions from 3 to 10 (including epilepsy, Crohn's, HIV and AIDS), and lays out a framework for producing and dispensing cannabis to patients. Only cannabis oils for vaping and ingesting will be available, but patients likely won't mind after waiting four decades to get legal access to their medicine in any form.
The bill will also make Louisiana the first state in the Deep South to legalize medical marijuana. The Pelican State's southern neighbors forbid medical marijuana aside from the non-psychoactive extract CBD, which only patients with severe epilepsy can use.
For an overview of the bizarre hurdles that have gotten in the way of implementing Louisiana's medical marijuana law since 1978, check out this article from The Times-Picayune.