BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A Marine veteran struggling with PTSD and a woman fighting cancer became some of the first people to purchase medical marijuana in Louisiana on Tuesday, as the state became the first in the Deep South to dispense therapeutic cannabis, four years after state lawmakers agreed to give patients access to it.
Nine pharmacies are licensed to dispense medical marijuana across Louisiana and most are expected to open this week. Louisiana joins more than 30 other states that allow medical marijuana in some form. And though marijuana is banned at the federal level, a congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with states' medical marijuana programs.
A 41-year-old combat veteran from Belle Chasse, Louisiana, made his purchase at Capitol Wellness Solutions on Tuesday. He said he'd tried medical marijuana in California and it changed his life but he was happy to be able to purchase it in his home state.
"It has become a reality to my family this morning, waking up and knowing that I would be able to go home and for the first time in my long struggle, I'll be able to do this legally in front of my family," Gary Hess told reporters before making his purchase. "That's incredible."
GB Sciences, one of two state-sanctioned growers, began shipping medical marijuana to Louisiana's registered dispensaries Tuesday morning, after state regulators recently completed final tests and cleared it for release. Hundreds of patients in Louisiana have been awaiting the start of the program after years of work by lawmakers, who created the regulatory framework in 2015 for dispensing the cannabis. There also have been regulatory disputes and other hurdles.
State Sen. Fred Mills, a pharmacist in St. Martin Parish who sponsored the medical marijuana law, never thought it would take years for patients to gain access. He said he has repeatedly received "difficult calls" from people with cancer, seizures and other debilitating conditions and their family members asking when cannabis will reach pharmacy shelves.
"The toughest thing has been not being able to give people a definitive timeline that they could make plans for," Mills said.
Randy Mire, owner of Capitol Wellness Solutions in Baton Rouge, saw three patients Tuesday and hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony at his spa-like offices in the state's capitol. He has hundreds more patients waiting. He said he specifically wanted to create a welcoming office space so patients could feel safe and that they were in a place where they wouldn't be judged.
For many of the patients, Tuesday was a big relief, he said.
"Maybe they've had to use medical marijuana not legally in the past and now they're able to actually have a legal recommendation for this," he said.
Only the Louisiana State University and Southern University agricultural centers are authorized to grow medicinal-grade pot.
Regulatory disagreements between GB Sciences, LSU's grower, and state regulators in Louisiana's agriculture department slowed getting the product to shelves, with medical marijuana advocates claiming the agency created unnecessary regulatory hurdles.
Meanwhile, Southern broke ties with the first company it chose to grow marijuana, delaying its efforts. Southern's new grower Ilera Holistic Healthcare planted its first crop two weeks ago and estimates its first product could be available by fall at the earliest.
Under the 2015 law and additional changes passed since then, Louisiana is allowing medical marijuana to treat a long list of diseases and disorders, such as cancer, seizure disorders, epilepsy, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson's disease.
Albert Anthony was at Capitol Wellness Solutions with his wife Jeanette, who suffers from a rare type of brain cancer. He said she hadn't tried medical marijuana before but he had and hoped it would have some benefits for her such as increasing her appetite.
"That's a great feeling, you know, that you can get a product that's legal now and we're just glad to see it come to pass," he said.
Doctors don'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. Eighty-eight doctors around the state have been approved for the Louisiana permit required to offer medical-grade pot to patients.
Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, whose agency regulates medical marijuana, said 4,760 doses of therapeutic cannabis were in the first batch of mint-flavored product released Tuesday. The second batch, expected in about a week, will contain 4,300 doses in cherry-flavored product, he said.
Marijuana can be available in oils, pills, liquids, topical applications and an inhaler, such as that used by asthma patients - but not in a smokeable form.
GB Sciences' first product will be liquid tinctures, in three different concentrations. John Davis, GB Sciences Louisiana president, said he expects to have dissolving strips taken by mouth available in a month, followed by topical creams.
Pharmacies set their own price for the products, and insurance won't be covering the cost, so patients will have to pay out of pocket. Mire said the cost at his pharmacy will range from $99 to $200 per product.