Updated on December 6, 2018.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
On September 17, 2018, Louisiana lawmakers eliminated a cap on the number of patients a doctor can see for medical marijuana. They also removed a rule requiring doctor’s visits every 90 days. These laws hindered access for many people, so their removal brings promise for patients looking for relief.
However, we still have plenty of obstacles to consider when we talk about Louisiana policy. Keep reading to learn more about this change and the availability of care for patients in Louisiana.
The Original Patient Cap
In 2016, the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners established a rule that limited how many patients a doctor could treat with medical marijuana. According to this regulation, physicians could only write recommendations for up to 100 patients. At the time of writing, 33 physicians can recommend cannabis medicine. When we do the math, that means that 3300 patients could get care under this law.
This may seem like a large number to some, but one doctor stated he alone has a waiting list of 700 patients. Medical marijuana laws also mandated regular 90-day visits for patients getting recommendations. These policies severely restricted the number of patients who could receive natural relief.
Why Did Lawmakers Remove These Restrictions?
Patients all over Louisiana advocated for a lift on the cap and visit requirements for better access to care. The state has few doctors registered to recommend medical marijuana. Combined with low patient caps, this physician shortage means most projected patients couldn’t get recommendations.
Assuming that all physicians who applied for certification get their licenses, the state’s capacity would rise to 5000 at most. Compare this number to the 33,400 to 63,000 eligible patients projected by the Marijuana Policy Project — and keep in mind that this statistic assumes that chronic pain doesn’t count as a qualifying condition.
Since Louisiana authorized chronic pain and other common qualifying conditions in August, those numbers grow even more. Fortunately, the State Board of Medical Examiners saw these trends and approved the changes with an 8-1 vote.
Accommodating Patients With Chronic Pain
The number of possible medical marijuana patients in Louisiana raised sharply when lawmakers approved chronic pain as a condition. According to the Marijuana Policy Project’s research, the total goes up by between 27,000 and 37,300 when we consider chronic pain patients. When we combine those estimates, a total of 64,000 to 105,000 patients could request recommendations.
These numbers do not surprise us. A large number of medicinal cannabis patients use it to relieve pain because so many people across the world have chronic pain symptoms. According to the World Health Organization, as much as 20 percent of the world’s population deals with chronic pain. Medical marijuana acts as a safe substitute for opioids, which many patients are wary of due to the United States addiction epidemic.
When you look at the number of studies done on cannabis medicine, many of them involve pain symptoms and show positive effects. All these factors make medicinal marijuana a popular remedy.
The cap removal will hopefully ease the strain that such a large number of patients puts on the state’s medical marijuana resources. However, patients, doctors and lawmakers still have plenty of barriers to consider for the future.
The State of Medical Marijuana Accessibility in Louisiana
Louisiana has much fewer barriers to access and more patient protections than they did when they began to legalize marijuana in 2015. In fact, the original bill used the word “prescribe,” making it unable to come into effect under federal law. The state initially didn’t allow distributors or growers, either.
However, Louisiana now has growers, dispensaries and doctors. They do not require patients to sign up for a medical card — you only need a recommendation to get medicine. As of fall 2018, patients will soon be able to find relief.
But, we have yet to see if the state has the structures in place to accommodate the thousands of patients who will want recommendations. Many doctors approved for cannabis medicine already have patients to see, and the average U.S. doctor has about 2300. Assuming that the 33 certified physicians see 1000 medical marijuana patients each, they could only help 33,000 patients. With the lowest potential number of patients at 64,000, this total doesn’t come close to enough. To meet the demand, every doctor with a medicinal cannabis license would have to focus on marijuana medicine entirely.
Once a patient gets a recommendation and goes to a dispensary, they could find more barriers to care. Louisiana has nine dispensaries who must serve all the patients in their regions. Each provider will have to help thousands of patients, which could result in long lines and waits. Regulations got in the way of the first legal crop of marijuana arriving on time, delaying the first available products to November 2018. Patients may not raise their own cannabis plants.
What Does This Mean for Patients Like You?
We definitely consider the removal of the patient cap and 90-day visits something to celebrate. Now, more patients will get access to high-quality medicinal cannabis care. However, we don’t know if doctors can accommodate the vast number of patients who need relief even without the limit. If you want to get a recommendation, you may have to face long waiting times — if you can find an appointment at all. We also don’t have an estimated number of products that will become available in November.
If you feel discouraged, we don’t mean to make things seem hopeless for Louisiana patients. You certainly have a better chance than ever at getting medicinal cannabis. However, patients and advocates need to fight for fairer access in Louisiana and the U.S. so everyone can benefit from this remedy.
Learn More About Medical Marijuana in Louisiana
MarijuanaDoctors.com has comprehensive guides for all 50 U.S. states. They cover everything you need to know about cannabis medicine in your area. Visit our Louisiana Medical Marijuana page to find a general overview and links to more detailed guides. Keep an eye on our blog for further medical marijuana updates.