Gov. Jindal: I’m open to medical marijuana for La.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday that he backs making medical marijuana available in Louisiana as long as it is tightly controlled.

“I continue to be opposed to legalization of marijuana. When it comes to medical marijuana ... if there is a legitimate medical need, I’d certainly be open to making it available under very strict supervision for patients that would benefit from that,” Jindal said while fielding media questions at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Although his comments were brief, the governor offered a few details on how legislators can make the proposal palatable for him, describing a scenario in which the marijuana is under the direction of a doctor and tightly controlled to prohibit abuse.

Jindal’s statement doesn’t quite rise to the level of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s political experiment. Cuomo bypassed his state’s legislators and authorized medical marijuana prescriptions at up to 20 hospitals this month. Still, medical marijuana advocates embraced the fact that Jindal has an open mind on the issue.

“That’s huge,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director for the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union.

Louisiana has a law on the books allowing medical marijuana. The law is unusable, making it impossible for doctors to scribble out a prescription for marijuana, she said.

Louisiana’s medical marijuana law was passed in June 1991 on overwhelming votes in both the House and Senate. Clark Gaudin, then a state representative who now has a private legal practice in Baton Rouge, sponsored House Bill 1187.

In the state Senate, the late John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, who had been House speaker and Senate president, handled the legislation. The only no vote in the Senate was Cleo Fields, who now is in private practice in Baton Rouge.

The 1991 statute calls for patients suffering from glaucoma, chemotherapy treatments and spastic quadriplegia to receive marijuana for therapeutic use. The statute hinged on the secretary of health and hospitals promulgating rules and regulations by Jan. 1, 1992. Apparently, those rules and regulations never materialized.

“There’s no way you can walk into a pharmacy and get what your doctor’s prescribed,” Esman said.

At the State Capitol on Tuesday, it was standing room only in a committee room hearing on legalizing marijuana.

Discussions touched on fixing the medical marijuana law and once again trying to soften the penalties for marijuana possession.

State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, said marijuana is a hot topic because the federal government recently elected to sit on the sidelines and let states decide how the drug should be handled within their own borders.

President Barack Obama told The New Yorker that marijuana use is a bad habit but not so different from cigarettes and alcohol.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., came out in favor of medical marijuana last week in an interview with The Las Vegas Sun newspaper. “If you’d asked me this question a dozen years ago, it would have been easy to answer – I would have said no, because [marijuana] leads to other stuff,” Reid was quoted as saying. “But I can’t say that anymore.”

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have legalized, decriminalized or reduced sentences involving marijuana possession.

Medical marijuana is legal in Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New Mexico. It is legal and simple possession of marijuana has been decriminalized in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Honoré, a former law enforcement officer, said he knows marijuana laws are a sensitive issue for the Republican-majority Louisiana Legislature. He favors allowing the people to vote on the issue, handing them the decision on whether Louisiana should just make medical marijuana workable or go even further.

“I say leave it up to the people,” Honoré said. “That way you’re taking the legislators who don’t want to be for or against it and leaving it up to their constituents.”

Former New Orleans firefighter Ron Hotstream hurt his back on the job in 2008 and has suffered ever since.

He uses a cane and took powerful painkillers but found they made him sick to his stomach and tired. He also worried about the painkillers’ long-term effect on his liver and kidneys.

Hotstream’s doctor shared his concerns and wants to prescribe medical marijuana but cannot do so under Louisiana’s existing law.

“Marijuana works as a pain reliever, a muscle relaxer and also as an antidepressant,” Hotstream said, touting the drug’s medical benefits.

The ACLU wants to make the medical marijuana law usable and decriminalize marijuana possession. Politically, Esman said, fixing medical marijuana is an easier sell in Louisiana.

“It’s very hard to look a sick person in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry; I just don’t care,’ ” she said.

Gregory Thompson, the New Orleans lawyer charged by the Sentencing Commission with researching marijuana statutes, said the governor’s comments are huge inasmuch as he was under the impression that the Jindal administration opposed anything to do with changing the state’s marijuana statutes.

“It’s promising that the governor is indicating a willingness to sit down and give the issue some thought rather than dismissing it out of hand,” Thompson said. “Too bad he didn’t include lessening the sentences” for simple marijuana possession.

In November, the governor’s advisory board on criminal sentencing issues voted 9-5 to sideline a recommendation that the Louisiana Legislature lower the penalties for the simple possession of marijuana. A committee of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission — a panel of lawyers, judges, prosecutors, scholars and law enforcement — heard from administration officials last week that the governor preferred the commission not to tackle marijuana issues until next year.

“It’s a tough political issue this year, particularly,” said George Steimel, lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

All the state’s district attorneys and judges are up for election in November.

“That’s interesting he would say that,” Steimel said upon hearing Jindal’s comments. “But, he is sworn to uphold the law and there is a law on the books allowing medical marijuana.” It was a dirty little secret until last week when some members of the Sentencing Commission, discussing the marijuana issue, expressed surprise that the law existed, he said.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney Association, said he and his professional organization that represents prosecutors before the Legislature have not seen a proposal, so he couldn’t discuss it intelligently, yet. Prosecutors oppose efforts to decriminalize marijuana and to lessen the penalties for its possession. But the medical marijuana issue has not come up.

“Obviously, if there’s going to be a proposal and if the governor is for it, then we’ll have to study very closely,” Adams said, adding, “This is the first time this issue will be seriously debated in the Legislature since 1991.”