For years, loving cannabis in Louisiana has been a risky affair. In the world’s incarceration capital, users and growers faced serious jail time if caught; growing or distributing any amount of cannabis could land first time offenders with a 30 year sentence. But on June 7th, when Louisiana lawmakers agreed to eliminate the possibility of jail time for possession of small amounts of weed, change finally seemed to be on the horizon for a legal system known for its draconian policies.
Currently, a first offender caught with half an ounce of cannabis is fined $300 or given 15 days in jail, but by the fourth offense they can be jailed for eight years. “This is a common-sense approach to take care of a problem that plagues us across the state,” said Sen. Jay Luneau as he presented the bill to the Louisiana Senate. “We’re spending thousands, probably millions of dollars keeping people in jail for offenses that they should not be in jail for.”
Governor John Bel Edwards confirmed Louisiana’s sea change in cannabis policy when he signed House Bill 652 into law, which he sees as an important step towards criminal justice reform. “In addition to carefully reviewing the bill, I also believe deeply that the state of Louisiana should no longer incarcerate people for minor legal infractions, especially those that are legal in many states, that can ruin lives and destroy families, as well as cost taxpayers greatly.”
The governor also signed a bill that will expand Louisiana’s medical marijuana program, allowing patients to access whole plant cannabis flower. Smoking medical marijuana is currently not allowed; it has to be administered through a “metered-dose inhaler” or tinctures. Unlike other southern states like Mississippi, medical marijuana has had a presence in Louisiana long before legalization of recreational cannabis was even in the conversation.
In 1978, Governor Edwin Edwards became one of the first governors to legalize medical marijuana (albeit in extremely exceptional circumstances). However, the bill did not provide any legal means for supplying medical marijuana, which meant Louisiana patients were still denied access . When Fred Mills became head of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy in 1998, he received frequent calls from patients seeking to fill medical marijuana prescriptions, but the lack of infrastructure for farming and distribution tied his hands.
So when Mills became a state senator, medical marijuana distribution was at the top of his list. In spite of vocal opposition from the sheriff’s association and the State Attorney General, in 2015 Mills was finally able to push through a senate bill to create a state dispensary system, with 10 authorized dispensaries and one cultivation site. Now, with statewide access to dispensaries and a list of qualifying conditions longer than ever, medical marijuana is finally widely available to patients who need it.
For Ruston Henry, the owner of H & W Drug Store, it’s high time for Louisianans to have access to the medicine they need. In 2019, the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy awarded H &W with the bid to serve as the region’s only medical marijuana dispensary, and since then Henry has witnessed the positive effects of the legislation firsthand. “It’s been extremely satisfying,” he says. “We’re helping countless numbers of people get their lives back.”
H & W is a New Orleans institution. Founded in 1963 by Ruston’s father Sterling Henry and his business partner Wesley J. Watkins, the pharmacy supported generations of Lower Ninth Ward residents. In 1999, Ruston Henry took over from his father as chief pharmacist, and when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Henry had to build the business back from the ground up. After relocating their stand-alone pharmacy to New Orleans East, they were able to open multiple retail pharmacy locations throughout the city.
Throughout the years, Henry has often felt powerless against the declining health of his community. “We serve a desperate population that was suffering needlessly,” he says. But when the state instituted the medical marijuana program, things began to turn around. “We have elderly people that were living as shut-ins now doing things they couldn’t normally do. There are kids who couldn’t go to school because of seizures or autism that are in class again,” he is relieved to report. “It’s enriching to see.”
Henry believes that their drugstore’s close ties with the community set them apart from the other candidates bidding for the dispensary position. “It was a very competitive process,” he says. “But we have a proven track record that we offer a one-on-one relationship with clients. They feel comfortable talking to us.” This is an important attribute in a state where cannabis still gets a bad rap. “Louisiana is a very conservative state,” he says, speaking from experience. “I used to believe the negative stigma myself. But as a healthcare professional, when you see additional research, you think, let’s get the political part out of the way. Now we are one of the only deep south states with a medical marijuana program–for once we took the bull by the horns, and now people see its validity.”
Adding cannabis to his prescription toolkit has come as a huge relief amidst the opioid epidemic. “Opiates are highly addictive, and in the course of our business we’re seeing more and more awareness of it,” Henry says, noting that cannabis is almost without adverse effects. “I advocate for medical marijuana almost daily. We see a huge amount of elderly people, who are conservative by nature, but they keep coming back because they’re getting relief.” When asked if he and his pharmacists have experienced any side effects, Henry can only list one. “Now we go home every day smiling,” he says.