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LA ganja law revisions must restrict, not expand, use

At least they listened to this space and took another whack at it. But there’s no real evidence that the bill offered will provide any real benefits and threatens unseemly costs. Indeed, it heads in the wrong direction.

Yesterday the Louisiana Senate passed SB 271 by state Sen. Fred Mills. It makes changes to the medical marijuana law passed last year that left many holes and questions in its wake. Among other things, the production mechanism makes this part of the process clumsy, the restricted distribution network invites cronyism and corruption, it sidesteps federal law that will discourage legal authorization for its use, it legally allows for a potentially incomplete range of uses, and the scientific evidence for the efficacy justifying those uses remains at best sketchy.

This updated version tries to address many of these questions by changing language regarding authorization of use and production and swelling considerably the number of conditions eligible for its use. Application of cannabis according to it remains in liquid form.

In assessing the utility of the law, lawmakers need to balance costs and benefits. As it is, typically the former appear discounted while the latter seem overblown. For the nearly 20 conditions that the bill would allow to justify legal use, medical science has found almost no significant evidence to support almost all of these, with the only ones listed in the law that showed any significant impact being for chronic pain relief (go figure) and spasticity.

Some senators seemed not to know this assessment. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt claimed science appeared uncertain on the issue, with evidence on both sides. As a result of that misperception, the decision came down in her case to lobbying from constituents through e-mail, many apparently parents, for passage. Hewitt may not have considered that emotionally desperate people may turn to anything to bring relief for loved ones and intensely stump for that policy preference, even if little research backs up that viewpoint.

Yet when weighed against the costs, such justification comes up wanting. As state Sen. Conrad Appel correctly noted, where medical marijuana use has become legal, external costs such as higher use among both children and young adults and in greater incidence of related risky behaviors increased. And while medical marijuana by itself does not act as a gateway to more deleterious drug use, marijuana use itself unmistakably harms people. Were the total effects of legalization for medical purposes neutral, Hewitt’s strategy of going with the preference of a vocal segment of the involved public might make sense. However, in a situation with few beneficial effects and demonstrated costs, satisfying a special interest may come at the expense of the public good.

Thus, rather than expand the law, legislators should look to pull back, narrowing use and therefore distribution. The bill revisions do not address concerns that limiting distributing pharmacies to ten might prompt unethical behavior to obtain licenses, but by reducing the number of eligible conditions to only those that feature chronic pain and spasticity, few pharmacies may wish to have such business given the relatively small volume that would result.

Data, not emotion, must drive this debate. From the genesis of this law a majority of lawmakers have gotten this ordering backwards, and the time must come to reverse that.

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