James Gill: Jindal gets behind medical marijuana

Bobby Jindal just became the fourth Louisiana governor to favor legalizing marijuana.

No, do not say you always figured they were smoking something funny in Baton Rouge. No mellow dude ever inhabited the Mansion. Shoot, three of these guys were Republicans. We are talking medicinal weed here.

After the possibility of a more relaxed approach to marijuana was mooted at a legislative hearing last week, nobody expected Jindal to endorse a hippy lifestyle. But he did up and say he might allow the chronically sick, under strict supervision, to take marijuana for pain relief. Jindal must figure that won’t cost him support even among the dedicated right-wingers he needs for any presidential run. This time, medical marijuana may come to pass in Louisiana.

It has been widely reported lately — including, alas, in this column — that a law allowing medical marijuana has been on the books here since 1991. That, indeed, is when the statute was passed. But it wasn’t the first. Tony Guarisco, a former Democratic state representative from Morgan City, points out that he authored a similar law in 1978, making Louisiana quite a trailblazer narcotics-wise.

Reporter Bruce Eggler recounted the legislative history in 2010 when the New Orleans City Council adopted an ordinance making marijuana possession a municipal offense, thus allowing police to issue suspects a summons instead of arresting them under state law. The ordinance raised eyebrows by declaring marijuana legal if it were obtained “pursuant to a prescription or order from a practitioner,” most everyone being unaware of the exemption enshrined in statute.

Eggler, who then worked for the Times-Picayune but last year joined the stampede to The Advocate, noted that permitting medical marijuana hadn’t made any difference. “The marijuana was supposed to come from the government’s research farm at Ole Miss,” he quoted Guarisco as saying, “but the state was never able to obtain any under federal policies.”

This was not, perhaps, all that surprising since marijuana remains verboten under federal law to this day, although Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that government policy will now be to turn a blind eye to minor offenses. The climate was much different in 1978, however. There was no chance the feds would let physicians prescribe joints.

That Gov. Edwin Edwards should nevertheless sign Guarisco’s bill was in keeping with his reputation as a liberal — if not libertine — Democrat. But the next time the issue arose, we had a rock-ribbed governor in the person of Dave Treen.

In 1981, then-Sen. Hank Lauricella, D-Harahan, authored a bill allowing pharmacists to fill marijuana prescriptions, which was somewhat pointless so long as the feds wouldn’t allow anybody to write them. The bill passed, however, and Treen signed it.

Legislators seemed to concede it was all a waste of time by 1989, when they came to remove various inactive boards and commissions from the books. Among them was the Marijuana Control Board, established by Guarisco’s bill. There being no marijuana to control, it evidently never met.

By 1991, however, legislators were ready to try again. They passed a bill, by Rep. Clark Gaudin, R-Baton Rouge, allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for patients suffering from glaucoma, the effects of chemotherapy or spastic quadriplegia. Doctors, however, had to be “registered to prescribe Schedule A substances with the Drug Enforcement Administration.”

The bill was signed by Gov. Buddy Roemer, who had switched from Democrat to Republican a few months earlier. Among those voting for the bill in the senate was Mike Foster, a Democrat at the time but a Republican when he ran for governor in 1995. Medical marijuana was not an issue during his administration, although support for it over the years has been impressively bipartisan.

But there was no support from the DEA, which continued to insist that marijuana was a dangerous drug with no medicinal properties whatsoever. Thus, no Louisiana doctor has ever been authorized to prescribe marijuana. If the sick ever are to get their hands on marijuana, state law will have to be revised to provide some other means of distribution.

But the cause is a popular one. Any doubt on that score was removed when Jindal took it up.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.