Tulane battles for the state’s 10th medical marijuana license • The Tulane Hullabaloo

Louisiana’s coveted 10th medical marijuana license is up for grabs.

One of the contenders: Tulane University.

At stake is the right to supply medical marijuana in a state that so regulates sales of the therapeutic drug that any new entrants are almost guaranteed no competition and high profits.

The university applied for the license in September, alongside 27 other candidates, including former Saint Steve Gleason of New Orleans and Louisiana Democratic Party chairwoman Katie Bernhardt. All will soon present their cases to the State Board of Pharmacy in hopes of joining the select group of companies.

“These licenses are a hot commodity,” said Dr. Mordecai Potash, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane.

Only two producers and nine pharmacies are currently licensed to operate in the state’s lucrative market. The 10th license marks the latest relaxation of the rules that have bound the industry since it opened in 2019. From tinctures to oils to smoking flowersLouisiana has cautiously legalized the use of medical marijuana over the past three years, paving the way for new treatments for chronic conditions, while raising questions about safety and access as demand soars sharply.

Louisiana’s steps reflect rapidly changing attitudes toward the drug, which has long been criminalized. More and more Americans want to consuming marijuana, and their state governments are listen.

If the Board of Pharmacy grants the license to Tulane, “there is tremendous research potential,” Potash said. But, “The more products you have, the more pharmacies you have, the more medical marijuana products are dispensed to people. And the more product distributed, the more likely it is to be shared or diverted to people who aren’t supposed to use it.

Tulane’s candidacy

Tulane is competing for the license to expand treatment services for physicians, medical students and patients.

“We want to be at the forefront of medicine to support an environment where traditional therapies coexist with alternative therapies such as medical marijuana,” said Lesley LeBlanc, director of Tulane Pharmacy.

If approved, the pharmacy will be called Tulane Medical Marijuana Dispensary and will open in Chalmette, Louisiana next July, according to application documents obtained by a public records request.

The university currently operates three traditional pharmacies, two in New Orleans and one in Alexandria, Louisiana.

Tulane’s application states that all pharmacy staff would complete an initial medical marijuana training course and at least one hour of medical marijuana training per year. Documents also say the pharmacy would offer one-on-one consultations, provide educational series and train new patients on safety methods to avoid diverting medical marijuana to unauthorized users.

Tulane will present its case to a review panel in November. This group will make a recommendation to the Board of Pharmacy, which will likely decide on the license by the end of the year.

Potash said the biggest challenges with opening the existing nine pharmacies were finances and supplies. There are a dozen forms of medical marijuana products allowed by Louisiana law, and all must have different strengths to meet each patient’s needs.

Potash said granting the license to Tulane would present tremendous research opportunities for the medical school, noting a Study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham who examined the effects of CBD, a chemical found in marijuana, on epilepsy patients there. Tulane could duplicate this work, he said, and pursue his own research interests.

Dr. Arwen Podesta, a clinical faculty member of psychiatry at Tulane, said research on medical marijuana is limited, often relying on patient anecdotes rather than clinical studies. She said Tulane could bring more weight to the industry than the existing nine pharmacies.

“Some of them aren’t very savvy in the pharmacy world, and they only see it as financial gain,” Podesta said. “An academic institution would be better equipped to be able to navigate the medical part of this.”

LeBlanc said Tulane doesn’t yet have any concrete plans for how the proposed pharmacy might work with Tulane Medical School, but the goal is to continue education and provide community resources.

Potash said possible areas of research could include the impact of medical marijuana on conditions such as depression, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“How well does medical marijuana actually work for these indications?” he said. “That’s a really open question.”

Past present Future

In 2019, concentrated cannabis extracts called dyes became the first legal medical marijuana product sold in Louisiana. From there, the Conservative legislature slowly eased the restrictions. In 2020, the state allowed doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any debilitating condition, ranging from anxiety to cancer. And, last January, the state added smokable products flowers to the growing list of medical marijuana products available in pharmacies, which has increased demand.

The process is still limited. The 10th pharmacy is the first new license granted since 2019, and all pharmacies are geographically separate.

“These pharmacies generally don’t compete with each other,” Potash said.

State law says pharmacies can open a “satellite” location if they reach 3,500 active patients. Seven of the nine pharmacies currently in operation meet this standard, but H&W Drug Store in New Orleans is the only one that has considered opening a satellite.

Potash said he expects the industry to continue to grow, but hopes it will be gradual, noting overprescribing issues that have historically plagued the nearby opioid market.

“Too much product creates abuse,” he said.

Podesta said it’s very helpful to use medical marijuana in controlled forms, but it’s not for all patients.

“We have to be aware and careful that it becomes a substance of abuse,” she said. “We just have to walk that line.”

Podesta said she would like Tulane to get the license because medical marijuana is rapidly becoming mainstream, and adding a university to the mix of pharmacy operators could reap financial benefits and help researchers deepen their understanding of drug impact.

“Times have changed a lot,” Podesta said. “We have seen a real shift in culture, as well as a shift in the medical use of plant medicine.” But, “If we call it medical, let’s make a medical institution part of the research and the solution.”

Milton S. Rodgers