Of all of the excesses that one can legally indulge in here in New Orleans, marijuana has not been a priority as much as it has been in other states. Nevertheless, it's still not uncommon to pass people on the street who either unrepentantly reek of the intoxicating herb or are brazenly smoking it for all to see. Though people don’t have the legal right to smoke it here at this time, attitudes are far more relaxed about it than they have ever been before. Some lawmakers and politicians are so cool with marijuana use that they’ve allowed a medical marijuana dispensary to open up soon in New Orleans, something that marijuana advocates say is long overdue.
On April 17, The Louisiana Pharmacy Board voted to award H&W Drug Store, Inc. the only medical marijuana dispensary license for Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes. There are nine healthcare regions mapped off for the state of Louisiana and each will have only one dispensary.
The win for H&W Drug Store owner Ruston Henry was a shock, considering he placed fourth out of five candidates during the selection process in early 2018. The leading candidate was Dr. Roy of the Metairie-based specialty pharmacy Factor One Source FAST Pharmacy, who planned on opening his dispensary on the bottom floor of his existing pharmacy, which he would have dubbed the Rx Greenhouse.
During the April hearing, Henry passionately touted his pharmacy as being a historic African-American institution that has proudly served the citizens of New Orleans for decades. “What happened with the board is they evaluated the proposal, they evaluated the company, and they saw that we're the front runners. They say, ‘Hey man, this company has been in business for over 50 years in the New Orleans community.’ They looked at our proposal, they looked at our presentation, and they reconsidered, and they said, ‘Hey, we're gonna go with H&W Drug Store,’” he boasted.
The H&W Drug Store opened in the Lower 9th Ward in 1963. It changed locations several times since then and is currently located at 4718 Paris Ave. in Gentilly. He assured that security measures would be in place when the dispensary is operational.
The vote for H&W did not come without controversy. The Pharmacy Board members who decided who got the sought-after license did not include any members of the initial selection committee, a move that seemed unfair to the other contenders. “What’s the point of having a subcommittee? I was on the Maryland Board of Pharmacy, and I can tell you that’s not how we did things,” Dr. Roy angrily stated. He plans on filing a public records request for H&W’s application and may challenge their license.
Dr. Roy explained that his competition attempted to discredit him, which may have tarnished his reputation to the voting committee. He accused GNO Medical Dispensary owner Nathaniel Graff of telling the owner of an indoor playground near where the Rx Greenhouse would have been located that nefarious activities would start taking place too close to where the children play. The owner of the playground confirmed that Mr. Graff did try to convince her that she should take out a complaint against Dr. Roy’s establishment. “We had everything coming after us,” Dr. Roy said. Mr. Graff only added that he was “disappointed” with the board’s choice of H&W Drug Store for the license.
Ruston Henry’s brother and business advisor Troy Henry stated that his brother was “the only adult in the room” during the contentious hearing and that they should be considered the best choice. The H&W Drug Store doesn’t have a timeline as to when they will start operations, saying that they will have to meet with the board to make those arrangements. The availability of their products will depend on whenever they can acquire marijuana from the only state-sanctioned growers.
The LSU and Southern University Agricultural Centers have been chosen to grow the medicinal-grade marijuana for the state’s dispensaries. LSU’s Ashley Mullens explained, “We're carefully moving forward. We feel like what we're doing is still serving the patients of Louisiana."
In Louisiana, medical marijuana will only be available in non-combustible forms. It won’t be sold in the bud form or in a form that could be smoked in a vape pen.
The decision to allow Louisiana citizens access to medical marijuana has been a controversial one. On June 30, 2015, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law HB 149, which allowed medical marijuana to be dispensed across the state, though the infrastructure to dispense pot wasn’t in place yet. On the same day, he signed SB 143, which made the punishments for being caught with marijuana much less strict than they used to be. Still, pot smokers could be given a fine of $300 and sent to jail for 15 days for a first offense.
The next year, Gov. John Bel Edwards surprisingly expanded Jindal’s medical marijuana bill, making it more accessible to citizens. He extolled his decision: “This is one of those bills that I believe will have a positive impact on people who need it the most.” Gov. Edwards passed the bill for people suffering from 10 serious diseases including cancer, epilepsy, Crohn’s Disease, muscular dystrophy, and AIDS. He made it clear that he didn’t want to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Some lawmakers are currently advocating to have more medical conditions added to the list of those that quality for marijuana treatment.
Though recreational marijuana smokers may have to wait a long time to have total legalization, it seems as though the current proceedings are a step towards a pot-friendly Louisiana.