By, Melinda Deslatte
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With only a few doctors signing up to dispense medical cannabis, Louisiana regulators are considering whether to change rules limiting how many marijuana patients each doctor can treat before the product becomes available later this year.
Louisiana’s State Board of Medical Examiners established a limit of 100 medical marijuana patients per physician in 2016, with doctors allowed to seek waivers for more. Vincent Culotta, the board’s executive director, said that cap could be boosted higher at the panel’s September 2018 meeting amid concerns the current limit is too low.
“We realize we’re going to have to increase that number,” Culotta said.
Only 40 doctors have submitted applications for the Louisiana permit required to offer medical-grade pot to patients, with 23 approved so far.
That has created the potential for a bottleneck for patients seeking marijuana, particularly after state lawmakers earlier this year added more medical conditions that can be treated with cannabis, expected to be on the market about November 2018.
If every doctor who has applied for a medical marijuana permit receives one, the current cap would limit the state to 4,000 patients, not counting any exceptions that might be allowed.
That’s far short of the population expected to seek the medication. Culotta said one of the state’s two sanctioned marijuana growers anticipates the number will reach about 100,000 patients.
“The 100-patient limit, I hit that limit a month ago,” said Dr. Victor Chou, who has opened a medical marijuana clinic in Baton Rouge, the capital.
Chou said an average of five patients a day contact his clinic, seeking therapeutic cannabis. His waiting list has ballooned to somewhere between 200 and 300 people. He’s requesting an exemption to add patients beyond the 100-person cap and supports raising the limit higher.
Doctors won’t issue a prescription but a “physician recommendation form,” a legal nuance aimed at keeping doctors from jeopardizing their medical licenses because federal law prohibits prescribing marijuana.
Chou said he’s heard some doctors permitted for medical marijuana are specialists who treat only certain conditions eligible for cannabis, such as an eye doctor with glaucoma patients. Other doctors with marijuana permits will quickly reach patient limits or may not have decided if they’ll actually recommend cannabis after seeing the regulations involved, he said.
“It is a grave concern to me that these patients basically are sort of trapped,” Chou said.
Under a law passed in 2015 and tweaked twice since then, Louisiana is allowing therapeutic cannabis to treat a long list of diseases and disorders, such as cancer, a severe form of cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, epilepsy and muscular dystrophy. Earlier this year, lawmakers added glaucoma, severe muscle spasms, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Parkinson’s disease.
Republican Sen. Fred Mills, the St. Martin Parish pharmacist who sponsored the 2015 law, supports boosting the patient limit higher.
“Now that the Legislature has increased the amount of disease states, it just seemed like the natural thing to do because there would be more patients seeking the medication,” Mills said. “You don’t want to limit accessibility.”
Cannabis can be available in medicinal oils, pills, liquids, sprays and topical applications, but cannot be sold in a form to be smoked. Nine dispensing pharmacies will be spread across the state. Only the Louisiana State University and Southern University agricultural centers can grow medical marijuana.