FILE - Louisiana Rep. Jack McFarland

Louisiana state Rep. Jack McFarland (left), R-Jonesboro

(The Center Square) – State lawmakers expressed concerns over the price of medical marijuana Friday at a Louisiana Medical Marijuana Commission meeting at the state Capitol.

The commission met to discuss laws and regulations affecting the state’s medical marijuana program, but legislators took a keen interest in low enrollment and the cost for patients.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry is the lead agency in the licensure and production of medical marijuana in Louisiana. LDAF Commissioner Mike Strain testified that a central problem to mitigating costs is that marijuana still is an illegal drug.

“You may wonder why this is not covered by Medicaid, Medicare and insurance. It is because it is not a prescription product, it’s a recommendation product," Strain said. "There’s a fine line there.”

Strain said physicians cannot write prescriptions because medical marijuana has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, thus government and private insurance won’t cover the costs.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy and other illegal substances. Thirty-five states have some form of legal marijuana use – medical, recreational or both – lawmakers said.

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, said he appreciated the challenges associated with the federal illegal designation, but urged Strain to do more.

“I think we need to come up with some solutions and recommendations from your department that can alleviate some of these concerns,” McFarland said.

Strain responded that lawmakers could cut an end-user tax.

“There’s a 7% tax at the end that you could eliminate immediately, legislatively,” Strain said.

Strain explained how cholesterol and high blood pressure medication can cost $600 but consumers don’t pay that amount when its covered by insurance. That’s not the case with medical marijuana, he said.

“For the average family, this is not paid for by any other mechanism other than cash,” Strain said.

McFarland countered that Arkansas, a neighboring state, has 90,000 medical marijuana patients while Louisiana has only 12,000 patients.

“Since 2015, we have passed 11 different acts amending and improving this process for the public. More states are coming on board and they are not having to do all this,” McFarland said. “Arkansas is years ahead of us. Mississippi and Texas are coming on; it’s not hard for people to drive across state lines.”

Rep. Travis Johnson, D-Vidalia, said high prices could support the marijuana “black market.”

Louisiana allows medical marijuana for patients with defined health conditions, such as cancer, HIV, seizure disorders, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma and PTSD. Lawmakers suggested many eligible people do not have reasonable access to the medical treatment.

Commission chair Joseph Marino, I-Gretna, said the state’s production and distribution system has “close to no competition” and that “people have very, very little options.”

“If we had more access and more options with the growers and dispensaries, you would think the cost would come down,” Marino told Strain.

According to the LDAF, Louisiana has only two licensees who are authorized to grow and cultivate medical marijuana in the state. Both are universities: Louisiana State University Agricultural Center and Southern University Agriculture Center.

Louisiana also has only nine dispensaries where patients can buy medical marijuana. They are spread across different regions.

“If somebody has to drive an hour or hour and a half … they might decide it’s not worth the effort,” Marino said. “The patient number would probably be higher if it was more accessible and affordable.”

Strain said he believed increasing demand hinges on more doctors approving medical marijuana to treat their patients.

“We have to educate physicians, and they have to be comfortable writing recommendations,” Strain said.