Louisiana set to expand medical marijuana business, allow for new pharmacies | Local Politics

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Louisiana’s insular medical marijuana industry — which is seeing a flood of new customers and a spike in sales this year after smokable flower became legal — is set to expand further.

Earlier this month, the state Pharmacy Board notified seven of the nine legal marijuana pharmacies in Louisiana that they were eligible to open a “satellite” location. So far, the New Orleans pharmacy is the only one to submit formal plans; H&W Drug Store is seeking permission to open a storefront in Metairie.

Several other pharmacy owners are on the hunt for new locations, and say they have plans to open their satellite shops in the coming months.

And the New Orleans region will soon see yet another new pharmacy, after the Pharmacy Board goes through a bid process to pick a second licensee for the area. The Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards this year refused to open the rapidly growing market up to new businesses, with one exception: the region with the highest population, which is the New Orleans area. That will bring the number of licensed pharmacies to 10; there are only two licensed growers.

The expansion comes as the legal marijuana business is growing its customer base. The number of patients in the program was up more than 186% in the second quarter compared to the year before. And the number of prescriptions doled out rose by a whopping 430%. The figures indicate the state’s nine pharmacies are doing millions of dollars in sales each quarter.

When the state’s medical marijuana program first kicked off in 2019, uptake was slow and the list of restrictions was long. But in the intervening years, lawmakers have loosened the reins, allowing doctors to recommend marijuana for any medical condition they deem could be helped by pot, and allowing patients to buy the smokable flower that was once verboten. The changes have made it a lucrative market for the few businesses allowed to participate.

The nine existing pharmacy owners will continue to enjoy regional monopolies for the foreseeable future. Each one that reaches 3,500 active patients is allowed to open a second location. The only two regions yet to reach that threshold are central Louisiana and northeast Louisiana.

Ruston Henry, owner of H&W Drug Store in New Orleans, didn’t respond to calls seeking comment. But documents he filed with the Pharmacy Board show he wants to open a location at 5055 Veterans Blvd. on the corner of Kent Avenue in Metairie by early October.

As of the end of July, the New Orleans region had the second-most active patients of the nine regions, with nearly 7,800, Pharmacy Board data show. The north shore region had by far the most, at 9,460 patients; Baton Rouge was the only other region above 7,000. In the second quarter of 2022, there were nearly 35,000 patients and more than 199,000 prescriptions filled statewide. That’s roughly triple the number of active patients and five times the number of prescriptions filled at this time last year.

Once the satellite locations get up and running, pharmacy owners will have the ability to open a third location if the second one also reaches 3,500 patients.

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Some pharmacy owners don’t think that’ll happen for a while.

Eric Vidrine, co-owner of Lafayette’s marijuana pharmacy, Apothecary Shoppe, said he’s got a purchase agreement on a former Chase bank branch in New Iberia, with plans for a satellite there. But he said it’ll be hard to get to 3,500 patients at the new facility, which is in a less populated area. The satellite locations must be 15 miles from any other pharmacy selling marijuana, according to the law sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, and more populated places have tighter restrictions on where they’re located.

“That will be very challenging,” Vidrine said. “If you start measuring it at a pharmacy level, that’s extremely difficult. I don’t know if places like New Iberia will ever get to a 3,500 patient count.”

Still, Vidrine said business continues to boom. He said the pharmacy sets new records almost every month.

Omar Pecantte, owner of Green Leaf Dispensary in Houma, said he’s looking at either Luling or Morgan City for his next location. He also said it’ll be difficult to hit the 3,500-patient threshold at the second location that would allow for a third.

Darren Martin, co-owner of Willow Pharmacy on the north shore in Madisonville, said he’s on the hunt for a new location, but hasn’t yet landed on where it’ll be. He said he’s selling out of just about all the products he buys from the growers, which give each pharmacy a certain allocation.

The law that allowed for the new pharmacy locations also transferred regulation of the growers — a source of controversy — from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to the Louisiana Department of Health.

The two growers, companies hired by LSU and Southern University agriculture centers, respectively, had fought with the Agriculture Department for years over what they saw as heavy-handed rules and red tape. Several pharmacy owners say they hope having the Health Department in charge will speed things up and eliminate supply disruptions. The Agriculture Department has long countered that its regulators weren’t slowing down the process.

The Health Department published its rules for the program earlier this month. New testing labs are expected to come online soon after applying with the Health Department, which proponents of the law argued would help clear up delays. Previously, the Agriculture Department did its own testing of product.